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Matt Carpenter's bare-knuckled rise to the big leaguesPosted Thursday, April 25, 2013, at 5:17 PM
St. Louis Cardinals second baseman (and third baseman/backup first baseman/backup anything else the Cardinals need) Matt Carpenter is likely the most diverse player on the Cardinals active roster.
Mike Matheny could pencil him in just about anywhere on the field, and the 27-year-old Sugar Land, Texas native could make it look like he belongs there.
He's the kind of position player who, once you've exhausted your entire bullpen, you might send to the mound for an inning.
Carpenter is rapidly making a name for himself in the big leagues as a player capable of adapting to change-both offensively and defensively. He's a solid hitter who uses the entire field and puts together quality at bats, but he didn't get there overnight.
He grew up in southeastern Texas as the son of a high school principal mother and a baseball coach father. Given his parent's jobs, young Matt Carpenter spent a lot of time on the ball field with his dad, Rick Carpenter, in the afternoons.
"I can't remember a time when baseball wasn't a part of my life," he said. "I was always going to games and traveling with the team."
It was a big part of his childhood, but at the time he likely had no idea that it would still play such a major role in his life, let alone that he would one day take the field with his favorite player.
Growing up just outside of Houston, Astros first baseman Lance Berkman was his childhood hero.
While he had been around baseball since he was in diapers, his career began just like most other big leaguers - playing tee ball. Some of the habits from that period are still present in his game today.
Never in his career has he worn batting gloves. Seeing a player bare-handed at the plate in a major league game now is definitely the exception and not the rule. That doesn't matter to Carpenter.
"It's more of a comfort thing. It worked and I stuck with it," he said. "Now it's kind of become my trademark."
Even back in his tee-ball days he knew that this was what he wanted to do with his life.
"It was always a dream - forever," Carpenter said. "But, you didn't know if it was going to come true. This is what I've always loved to do."
As a player, Carpenter stood out from a young age. At Elkins High School, he was a two-time All-State tournament selection and in 2004 was named as a TPX second-team High School All-American player.
After high school he attended Texas Christian University where he continued his hitting ways. He played solid ball and eventually caught the attention of scouts.
In 2009, he decided to give the draft a shot, but kept a level head about it.
"Obviously you want it to happen, but if it's not meant to be then it's not meant to be," Carpenter said. "I was just excited when it did happen."
It was that day, when he was chosen as the 399th overall pick, that he realized that he really did have a shot at making it to the big leagues.
Once he reached the minor leagues a lot changed in life. The work became much more intense and he was on the road away from family for months at a time. Despite the stress that life in the minors can bring, Carpenter stayed focus on his goal.
He worked hard every day, arriving early to the park and leaving late always trying to earn his place.
Of course, with the numbers he put up in the minor leagues, he wasn't going to lose his place.
In 2010 Carpenter was named the Cardinals Organization Player of the Year. For a young player trying to make the jump to the Major League Baseball, that award is a big deal. It means St. Louis was taking note of what he could do.
He finished 2010 with the fourth highest batting average (.316) in the Texas League, the third highest on-base percentage (.412) and was fifth in runs scored with 75. He was a two-time Texas League Player of the Week and was a member of the North Squad for the Texas League All-Star game.
His day would come, but when was the only question. The answer: June 4, 2011.
"It was like one of those dream come true moments," he said, noting that it was awesome his parents were able to get to St. Louis in time to watch.
Through his first four at bats, he hadn't managed to get on base. In the bottom of the ninth with two outs in a tie game against the Chicago Cubs, Carpenter got his first major league hit - a double to left field off of Kerry Wood.
He didn't score that day, but he would plenty over the next couple of years.
While that was a great feeling, Carpenter said the most unforgettable moment of his young career came in game four of the 2012 NLCS.
Filling in for Carlos Beltran who was injured in his first at bat of the game, Carpenter came in and blasted a 421-foot two-run home run off of San Francisco Giants ace Matt Cain.
"That was a really cool moment," he said, noting that his family was there to watch that game, too. "It's hard to top that."
Carpenter's wife and parents have been very supportive of his career and the climb it took to reach his current level. He credits his father with instilling in him a work ethic that made it possible.
Without that, a career in Major League Baseball simply doesn't happen.
"He took his job very serious," Carpenter said of his father. "He's an extremely hard worker and spent countless hours working on his team."
Now, as a grown man, Matt Carpenter is spending countless hours working for his team as well. He goes in early and leaves late with a mature understanding of what it will take to reach his goals.
"I want to try to become the best player I can be on a daily basis," he said. "At the end of my career, if it's 10 or 15 years from now or two years from now, whatever the case may be, if I can look back and say 'I gave it my best effort' then I'll be OK with that."
Right now, he's focusing on today and hoping that he can continue to perform at the major league level like he has so far - and it doesn't come easy.
"This can be a tough lifestyle," Carpenter said. "It's tough being away from family, but that goes on in baseball even at the start of your minor league career."
Now entering his second full season, he believes love and support are key to making the adjustment.
"They're my best supporters and my biggest fans," he said of his wife and family. "That's why it's so nice to have a good relationship with your wife and loved ones, so that you always have their support and they understand what that's going to entail.
"It's just part of the gig."
For Carpenter, the struggles of the climb have been well worth the wait. Over the past year, he has begun to cement himself into the major league roster.
The key, he believes, is to be consistent enough that they need you in the lineup. That's what he strives for everyday, and right now there's no doubt that the Cardinals are better with Matt Carpenter in the lineup.
"You're only going to become the player that you're capable of being through hard work," he said.
Carpenter not only understands the value of hard work, he lives it.
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Corey Noles, staff writer for The Daily Statesman and Editor of The North Stoddard Countian, is the author of a regular baseball/St. Louis Cardinals column and also uses his blog to sound off on various happenings in sports. He also operates a weekly baseball mailbag column.
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