JUPITER, Fla. -- The poster still hangs in his bedroom, framed and neatly matted.
Because Matt Carpenter is a professional baseball player, and because professional baseball players are required to walk and talk and carry themselves with a certain cocksure dignity, the Cardinals' infield prospect never strolled 20 feet across the clubhouse to tell Lance Berkman that his image graces a wall in the Sugar Land, Texas, room he continues to call home. "It'd be sort of embarrassing," Carpenter said. "And a little out of place."
When one enters the Cardinals' spring home, Carpenter, too, seems out of place. First, there is his location -- immediately to the right of the main entrance, accessible for every mosquito and gnat that comes through looking for blood. Then there's the uniform number -- 92, which aligns him with all the other great No. 92s in baseball history. Like, eh, uh, yeah. Lastly, there is Carpenter's face. Namely, it is that of a 14-year-old high school freshman, not a 25-year-old third baseman fighting for the final spot on the St. Louis roster.
Yet when one reads over the Cardinals' Grapefruit League offensive statistics, Carpenter's name is atop the list. Though he has yet to play higher than Double-A since being selected by the organization in the 13th round of the 2009 June Draft, Carpenter leads the club with a .340 average, 17 hits and a .460 on-base percentage. Until yesterday, he was thought to be the shocking frontrunner for the final spot on the roster.
Alas, he was reassigned.
One of spring's best stories ended with a thud.
But not really. Because Matt Carpenter is different. Unique. Special. Optimistic. "It was great," he told MLB.com of his time in camp. "I've just been telling people the same thing -- I came into this camp just hoping to get an at-bat or two, just like everybody else. To get the opportunity that I had and to be here this long has just been amazing. The experience that I gained, the confidence that I gained, being around these veteran guys and picking up things that they do has been unbelievable."
When one measures the overt joy rating of baseball's 30 clubhouses, the Cardinals rank, ahem, low. Superstars tend to set the tone, and Albert Pujols -- charitable, productive, future Hall of Famer -- isn't exactly Richard Simmons. That's not a knock. The first baseman just happens to be quiet and guarded, with little to offer when it comes to chit-chat or wisdom for rookies. When asked how many words he exchanged with Pujols, Carpenter said, "Oh, not even 30. But why would he talk to me? I'm fighting to make the club, just another guy. I just watch and learn and try to pick things up. No complaints at all. I'm thrilled to even be in the same clubhouse with him."
Indeed, Carpenter was a bundle of joy and passion, often first or second to arrive in the morning, often one of the last to leave. By all accounts, he was supposed to receive but a handful of spring at-bats before fading into the abyss. Yet during spring, there are always those players who take "by all accounts" and toss the words in the nearest paper shredder. Carpenter dazzled the team with his quick bat and surprisingly soft hands at third. The work ethic didn't hurt, either. "I'm here because I want to make the team," Carpenter said recently. "Is that likely? I don't know. But it has to be my goal."
Born and raised in Sugar Land, Carpenter attended Texas Christian University, and began his junior year in 2007 expecting to be a high draft pick that June. Instead, eight games into the season he made a throw home and felt his left elbow explode. Within weeks he was undergoing Tommy John surgery -- draft hopes dead, future uncertain.
Carpenter returned to play two more college seasons, then signed with St. Louis for a whopping $1,000 bonus (oddly, the demand for fifth-year college seniors with bum elbows isn't all that great). The money, he says, was irrelevant. This was about chasing the dream.
"All I've wanted is to play baseball for a living," says Carpenter, who batted .316 with Double-A Springfield last year. "I grew up watching the Astros, and that made me want to reach that level; to know what it's like to be a major leaguer."
Back in high school, Mackenzie Detmore, Carpenter's then-girlfriend/now-fiance, presented him with the framed Berkman poster. As a man on the verge of reaching the highest level, he should probably take it down. What big leaguer, after all, keeps up posters of other big leaguers? Maybe Carpenter can put it in a closet. Maybe he can sell it on eBay. Maybe ...
"It's always hung there, sort of as an inspiration," he says. "Anyone would love to have that type of career. So why mess with a good thing?"