HOUSTON The link between folklore and fandom is intrinsic, with the blend of exaggeration and admiration yielding tales that supersede life.
Cardinals rookie infielder Matt Carpenter doesn't wear batting gloves. That he is something of a novelty in that regard has made him a fan favorite in St. Louis, a city where hardnosed baseball players are revered and lauded for as long as effort and eccentricity are maintained.
But there is more to Carpenter than an old-school approach and weathered hands. He is a product of perseverance and patience, of persistence and poise. His father, Rick, enjoyed wondrous success coaching baseball in Missouri City, with Carpenter a key cog on Elkins High School teams than claimed consecutive Class 5A state championships in 2002-03.
Those were the halcyon days, at least until opportunity opened the door for Carpenter to crack the everyday lineup with the Cardinals. That his path wasn't linear or expeditious makes the present day much sweeter.
"I'm extremely blessed to be where I am," Carpenter said during his return home this past weekend. "This is one of the best organizations not only in baseball, but I really believe in all of sports. Our fan base in St. Louis is unbelievable.
"It's one of those things where I've always felt that hard work pays off; that's the mindset I had growing up. I give that credit to my dad. You put your nose down to the grindstone and get after it, and try to make the most of your opportunities and have fun with it."
The fast track to stardom was exhilarating. Carpenter was a three-time all-district standout at Elkins and was named sophomore of the year as the Knights rolled to a 35-1 record and mythical national championship in 2002. He played an instrumental role in helping Elkins repeat as state champions as a junior, and closed his career as the program's all-time hits leader. He was highly regarded and extensively decorated. When he signed with TCU, expectations were that his star would only brighten.
It did. After hitting .289.391.366 in 50 games (41 starts) as a freshman, Carpenter finished second on the team in batting as a sophomore with a .349.432.411 line over 62 starts. He was primed for an explosive draft-eligible junior season and a lucrative signing bonus. Then his fast track was derailed by an elbow injury, Tommy John surgery, and a career that unexpectedly took five years to complete.
Two years later than anyone anticipated, Carpenter earned his selection in the first-year player draft, taken in the 13th round by the Cardinals in 2009. As a 24-year-old in short-season rookie ball, he was woefully behind his peers. His dreams seemed far from realization, and his mettle was tested in manners that Carpenter was forced to accept.
"It's just one of those things where you've got to know your abilities," he said, "and stay focused and driven and hope that you'll catch a break."
His first break came the following season when Carpenter hit .316.412.487 with 12 home runs and 53 RBIs in 105 games with Double-A Springfield. He was named Cardinals Minor League Player of the Year and earned a midseason call-up the following summer, 10 days shy of the two-year anniversary of his signing with the organization.
His second break came last month when one of his childhood idols, former Astros star Lance Berkman, was sidelined by a left calf strain. Carpenter, a third baseman by trade, filled the void at first base and entered Monday's series with the Diamondbacks leading all National League rookies in RBI (14) and triples (three), ranking third in extra-base hits (nine), and fourth in multi-hit games (five), runs (10), total bases (34), doubles (five), walks (eight) and slugging percentage (447).
For a team relying on veterans with long injury histories, the Cardinals needed a strong bench to reinforce their desires to repeat as World Series champions. Carpenter, seemingly out of nowhere, has chipped in.
"We talked in the outfield (Friday) about did he ever expect that he was going to get this many games and innings played and hardly none of them at his main position at third base," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "It certainly wasn't something that he was expecting, but he quickly answered that he loves it.
"You've got to have that. Every team has to have that guy that kind of surprises you with how well he fills in, and Carp has been that guy for us this year."
When Carpenter arrived at Minute Maid Park last Friday, he was swamped with the obligatory two dozen ticket requests from family and friends. What caught him by surprise were the additional well wishes he received via texts and Facebook wall posts. His localized fame never subsided, with those who followed his exploits from Elkins to TCU through the bushes and up to St. Louis elated with recent developments.
"It's funny because when you grow up here you could have your seventh-grade English teacher here that you haven't seen in years, and she contacts you and says she's so happy for you," Carpenter said. "That actually did happen. It's one of those deals that you don't know who's in the ballpark and who could show up."
For those unfamiliar with his back-story, Carpenter was easy to spot. He turned in a couple eye-opening defensive plays at an unnatural position and, of course, he took his turn at bat sans batting gloves. Carpenter is a revelation and budding folk hero in a town that is quick to idolize them.
It took Carpenter longer than he ever envisioned to arrive at this destination, but the journey enhanced his enjoyment of this moment.
"As far as my progression as a player and the process that has happened, I couldn't ask for a better situation," Carpenter said. "Getting that late start, being almost 24 years old when you sign, getting drafted in 2009 and making it to the big leagues in 2011 was a pretty awesome path. It's been a lot of fun. I've just enjoyed the ride, enjoyed getting a chance to play."
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