Why Matt Carpenter was a mensch for the ages in Cardinal Nation


Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Matt Carpenter was the epitome of an old school baseball player: he didn’t wear batting gloves and couldn’t adjust to the shift, but he played wherever the team needed him. No matter where managers Tony La Russa, Mike Matheny and Mike Shildt pointed to on the diamond, Carpenter took the field and gave his all. That’s what being a mensch in pro sports is all about: doing the little things — even the things that will make you look bad-while desperately trying to keep the clock on your career ticking.

Carpenter’s clock has officially stopped, at least in St. Louis. Last week, the team declined the $18.5 million option for the 2022 season, making him a free agent and ending his 10-year Major League tenure wearing the birds on the bat. The money was too rich for an aged-out talent like Carpenter, but the fault of that foolhardy (and completely unnecessary) two-year extension falls on President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak’s shoulders. After an insane comeback season in 2019, the team made that choice and Carpenter agreed. And then his baseball abilities broke down, and Cardinal Nation grew angry.

It was the two-year contract extension that soured the grapes with Carpenter and the fans, but that should be a different story this morning. Via The Players’ Tribune (a place for pro athletes to tell their stories, like Kolten Wong’s video earlier this year), Carpenter released a heartfelt, gratitude-overloaded sentiment in a video tribute to St. Louis:

Here’s the wild thing. Carpenter put together a solid career here. Before back injuries and Father Time started beating his skills down, there were few players in the league who could work the count and wear a pitcher down like Carp. In 1,329 career games, he slashed .262/.368/.449, averaging 141 hits, 37 doubles, 19 home runs, and 85 walks per season. Carpenter also averaged 131 strikeouts but then again, isn’t that the norm these days in the league for a slugger?


That’s what Carpenter became later in his career, as injuries and a change in the defensive alignment strangled his pull-swing tendencies. A slugger who averaged 27 home runs from 2015-2018, a four-season stretch where his 162-game averages were 30 home runs, 93 walks, 96 runs scored, and 40 doubles. Again, whatever the team needed him to be, Carpenter was.

~One of the best lead-off hitters in baseball? Check.

~Someone who could play four to five positions in a season? Check.

~A middle of the lineup threat? Check.

~A durable player who played 114 games or more in nine of 10 seasons? Check.

~A clutch hitter with the bases loaded? Check.

As a superhero who wore metal once said, every beginning has an end–and no business outside of radio hammers that notion into the ground like pro sports. The same fans who were screaming as he helped drown the Chicago Cubs during a 2019 playoff race were the same ones booing him at Busch Stadium this past season. “What have you done for me lately” travels faster the wave these days, with many questioning if a Cardinals Hall of Fame red jacket will be put on Carpenter one day. I think he will get one.

After all, every aspiring baseball player should study and try to equal what Carpenter managed to do. As he notes in the Players’ Tribune video, if it weren’t for the Cardinals taking a chance on him, his career may have ended 12 years ago. He lost weight, redesigned his baseball approach, and became a tireless worker in the game. He inspired teammates, kept his head down, and never made excuses for his mistakes.

The dividends paid off quickly, as Carpenter flourished in his first full season back in 2012. After getting into seven regular season games and enjoying a World Series playoff run with La Russa, Carpenter posted an .828 OPS the following season. Over five of the next six seasons, he would post an OPS of .800 or better.

While no one will mention his name with the greats of the franchise, I hope Carpenter finds a less-polarizing adoration from Cardinal Nation after his time here. Sometimes, when sports fans step back and see the whole picture, their mood and attitudes can change towards a player. Carpenter, with the batting glove-less hands and full beard lurking over the plate as he takes those practice swing loops and then settles back on his heels before cocking the bat back, deserves warmth and a last embrace from St. Louis.

Early in the video, Carpenter talks about the baseball cathedral-type atmosphere at Busch Stadium, how he could feel 45,000 strong in the stands underneath his cleats, shaking the dirt. He appreciated every cheer, standing ovation, and never took it for granted. Carpenter didn’t take the escalator to baseball success; the hard route was his preferred path.

Being a mensch doesn’t mean you have to hit 50 home runs and hit .340 every year. It means you do all the character-building and young kid-inspiring things 100% the right way. That endures with a city. It sure did for Carpenter.