Matt Carpenter, Yankees hat atop his graying head, wiped away tears.
“Excuse me,” Carpenter said Friday afternoon. “I didn’t want to do that. Sorry, guys.”
The former Cardinals All-Star explained how he still pulls for the Cardinals – outside of this weekend, of course. He shared how excited his kids were to hear about this trip when his voice caught. Carpenter ran a hand across a face that has swapped his signature beard for a startling mustache. (New team. New rules.) He sipped a swig of water and cleared his throat.
“They’re happy to be back,” Carpenter concluded.
An emotional weekend for Carpenter and the Cardinals was underway.
Three hours later, after knotting his spikes in a visitors’ locker room he had never visited before, Carpenter walked towards Busch Stadium’s batter’s box. He was the designated hitter for baseball’s best offense. He was hitting third, right after Aaron Judge and his 43 home runs.
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A 45-second ovation and a head pat from Yadier Molina greeted him. More tears.
Carpenter worked familiar dirt into his bare hands. He worked the full count against Dakota Hudson. He worked over a Hudson sinker into right field for a single and greeted Paul Goldschmidt at first base. More cheers.
Happiness is and should be the dominant emotion of this weekend’s reunion.
Carpenter’s remarkable resurgence with the Yankees after the Cardinals understandably declined his 2022 contract option, combined with the Yankees’ first trip here since 2014, presented a chance for a player who one day should make the Cardinals Hall of Fame and a fan base that enjoyed the majority of Carpenter’s 11-season Cardinals career to reunite on much better terms.
Carpenter’s run with the Cardinals was too long and too good to be defined by what became a perplexing, frustrating and confusing end.
That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about that ending, though.
The Cardinals need to do more than talk about it.
Carpenter looked cooked when the Cardinals declined to pick up his $18.5 million club option. You thought it. I thought it. He insists he didn’t think so.
If he was wrong, this story would be one of a lifelong Cardinal who got a bad extension. His fall would have been a byproduct of misplaced front-office allegiance, and nothing more. Endings, especially abrupt ones, are very rarely pretty. But Carpenter, who is nearly 37 now, was not cooked despite a fall to and then below league-average production that started after his impressive 2018 season and worsened through a career-worst 2021. He was down, and down bad, but not out . Look at him now.
By now you know the story. Carpenter toured the country determined to fix his swing. He worked with multiple swing gurus, including former Cardinals teammate Matt Holliday, who played a big part in Carpenter’s recovery. He took a minor-league deal with his home-state Rangers and started finding and repeating success at Class AAA. The Rangers could not find a spot for him, but the best team in the American League did, and now Carpenter is back to being hotter than his most potent salsa.
He arrived in St. Louis with a .322 batting average, a .435 on-base percentage and a .791 slugging percentage. Entering this series he had 15 homers, nine doubles and 36 RBIs – in just 43 games with the Yankees.
It can now be declared that Carpenter could indeed be fixed. It’s too late for it to happen with the Cardinals. It’s not too late for the Cardinals to analyze if they could have done something differently.
First-year Cardinals manager Oli Marmol, who was once minor-league roommates with Carpenter, knows the Carpenter debates that are raging these days. He’s guarded on the topic for that reason. But he acknowledged the Cardinals can’t preach curiosity one day and then ignore it the next even if it means poking and prodding around on a sensitive subject.
“You don’t just look,” Marmol said. “You flip over every couch. You try to figure out, what did we miss? That’s my biggest fear. In my seat, my biggest fear is not unlocking someone’s potential and someone else being able to figure it out. By far, the biggest fear. You lose a player because you become impatient with him, or they are not performing, and they go somewhere else and figure it out. Before that happens, you want to make sure you looked under everything to make sure, hey man, we just can’t figure it out.”
Unfortunately for the black-and-white crowd, this case is not so simple. Carpenter felt physically fine during those final sinking seasons here, but admits now he was not in a great place mentally. His confidence was restored by his Class AAA rejuvenation. Yankee Stadium’s short porch for the pull-hitting southpaw swinger is a good fit, but it’s not the only answer. Carpenter showed up here with a .576 slugging percentage on the road this season.
Carpenter critics who suggest he punted forget this is a player who committed himself to a decade-plus in the majors after being a 13th-round draft pick. He logged countless hours in batting cages during his downfall. Yet the harder he worked, the more hopeless things seemed.
Pointing fingers at Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert, similarly, ignores the potential help Carpenter was not always in the right headspace to hear and receive. Then again, reaching a struggling player is a big part of a hitting staff’s job.
What happened for Carpenter that didn’t happen here?
“Sometimes, you know, it’s just having different eyes on you,” Carpenter said. “A lot of it was just myself. Getting some new perspective. Getting some new thoughts. Training in a different way. You can make a case that, for me, a change of scenery was probably a good thing. I dug myself a pretty big hole. It’s hard to get out of one when you step into the box and feel like you’re not in a good spot. So, getting that definitely helped. Mechanically, I really just felt like I got back to who I was as a hitter. I had some people help me.”
Playing the blame game helps no one.
Figuring out how to better help freefalling hitters in the future should be the goal.
Carpenter’s legacy here does not have to be over if his story can be used to improve the team’s process for helping struggling Cardinals before they become former ones.