This space was originally reserved to write words of warning about the local pro baseball team, but thanks to the Winter From Hell, brought to you by WFAA’s Pete “Dante” Delkus, my plane bound for Arizona was canceled. So was the next one.
Rather than write about the Texas Rangers and any number of their players who have giant question marks sewn to the back of their jerseys (lookin’ at you, Elvis), we will settle for a different local baseball guy with no question mark at all.
With all due respect to Andy Dalton, J.J. Henry, Daryl Washington and Angela Stanford, the best Horned Frog in pro sports these days is a third baseman who thought he would be coaching by now rather than playing.
And with all due respect to guys like former TCU baseball players-turned-big leaguers Bryan Holaday, Jake Arrieta and Brandon Finnegan, Matt Carpenter is the best combination — on and off the field — to represent this school on a national level. He is TCU’s current LaDainian Tomlinson — the ultimate ambassador.
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Today, Carpenter is with the St. Louis Cardinals in spring training preparing for his fourth season in the major leagues. Like LT, Carpenter is a former player who defied his background to become better than nearly everybody else in his respective sport.
“Obviously, I had confidence in my abilities and was hopeful I could make it to the major leagues, but I would be lying to you if thought I would be where I am at,” Carpenter told me a few weeks ago before playing in the TCU alumni baseball game. He and his wife live in Fort Worth in the off-season. “I have been fortunate, lucky, blessed...all of those words.”
True, true and true. It is a disservice to suggest Carpenter is anything other than outstanding. The man can flat-out play the game.
Since becoming a big-league regular in 2012, Carpenter already has been an All-Star twice, finished fourth in the National League MVP voting in 2013 and, over the last two seasons, led the NL in hits, runs, walks and doubles in one of those two years.
In reviewing his background, the part of this climb that does not compute is that he spent five years at TCU. It was enough time that he was actually able to finish his degree, which is virtually unheard of in big-league baseball. College baseball players who spend five years in college normally are career minor leaguers, and future bankers.
“I knew my time clock was short,” said Carpenter, who was a 13th-round pick of the Cardinals in 2009. “When I got drafted, I was about to turn 23 and I knew, ‘You gotta go, and you gotta go now. You have to play now, and play well and you have to get promoted every year.’ I was just lucky. I was promoted three levels in my first year.”
Why did Carpenter make it in a game where most do not? What makes him so special? Not even he knows. Carpenter is one of those guys who defies conventional sports logic. So did Andy Dalton. So did LT. So did Jets receiver Jeremy Kerley. At one point, all of these TCU guys were unwanted by the “big schools,” and yet they all morphed into special players.
“The best advice I got was I was coming off surgery and I was about to become a fifth-year senior,” he said. “My career wasn’t going the way I wanted at all. [TCU baseball coach] Jim Schlossnagle told me, ‘Your window for opportunity is so small in this game. You have one shot to make it and you have to make the most of it when it’s there.’
“You can’t play baseball forever. I could have been done at the end of my college career, and for a guy like me that loved baseball so much, it was eye-opening. After that, I really took it to another level as far as working hard.”
Had baseball not worked out, his plan was to coach. Preferably at TCU. Chances are good he won’t have to do that now, or when his career is over. In March 2014, he signed a six-year contract extension for $52 million. He is a beloved fixture in the baseball-drunk community that is St. Louis, and one of the best players on a team that always contends for the World Series.
As much as Andy Dalton has done for the Bengals in leading them to the playoffs a franchise-record four consecutive seasons, he is currently in the NFL Quarterback Dunk Tank for not winning any of those postseason games. He is good.
Kerley, Arrieta, Stanford, Henry, et al. are all good. As of today, Carpenter is the best.
Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.
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Twitter: @macengelprof and The Big Mac Blog