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A Pitcher’s Drive to Play

Chris Carpenter's motivational story about overcoming his physical injuries with positive thinking to play the game he loved.

Motivational stories: Chris Carpenter's positive thinking to overcome injuries

A few weeks ago St. Louis Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter strode off the field in Kansas City, having pitched a masterful game. He went 7.2 innings, gave up only one run and three hits to secure a 7-1 victory over their cross-state rivals, the Royals.

In the dugout, Carpenter’s teammates applauded. He had pitched the Cardinals into first place. A smile crept onto the corners of Carpenter’s mouth. In the past, it wasn’t an emotion the intense pitcher would easily show. But after enduring two arm surgeries that cost him nearly three full seasons and could have ended his career, the 34-year-old right-hander has learned to take joy in the game when he can.

It has been a tough lesson for Carpenter, a fierce and self-critical competitor.

“I expect a lot of myself,” he said before a recent game against the New York Mets at Citi Field, their brand new stadium.

When healthy, Carpenter is among baseball’s premier pitchers. In 2005, he won 21 games, was the National League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game and won the Cy Young Award as the league’s top hurler. In 2006 he won 15 regular-season games, and then pitched eight innings of shutout ball to lead the Cardinals to a 5-0, Game three World Series victory over the Detroit Tigers.

Carpenter seemed on his way to greatness. Then, opening day of the 2007 season, he tore his elbow. Surgery followed, and then long, lonely months of difficult rehab. Carpenter knew the uphill battle he faced, just to get back on the mound. A previous shoulder operation has cost him the entire 2003 season. He pitched just four games over the next two years. Full recovery was far from certain.

“It was hard, I’m not going to kid you,” he said. “You have to deal with the anger, the frustration. You can’t help your teammates. You can’t do what you love.”

Carpenter paused a moment, gathering his thoughts. “I’ve learned there’s always the chance that the last game you pitched turns out to be your last.”

While rehabbing, he came to realize the physical part—repairing his arm—was just half the battle. His emotional state was equally important. Some days he could feel his arm improving, other days it seemed to regress. He had to find equanimity. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to cope.

“I had to accept the fact that injuries are part of the game, that what happens, happens,” Carpenter said. “I decided that when I came back, I was going to enjoy my teammates more, enjoy the game more. That I was going to treasure being on the mound, competing.”

In his first game back this April, he pitched brilliantly. Carpenter went seven innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates, allowing just one hit to earn the win. He started off superbly in his next game, against the Arizona Diamondbacks, as well. It feels so good to be doing this again, he thought. Then in the third inning he swung awkwardly while at bat and strained his left ribcage. He left the field in pain. He missed half of April and much of May. He had to wonder: Was disappointment his fate? Once again, he had to gather himself. Stay positive, be strong, he told himself.

When Carpenter returned May 20 against the Chicago Cubs, he pitched with joy, with verve. Five scoreless innings, three hits, a 2-1 victory. Since then he’s been the Cardinals’ ace—as he always expected, and as his teammates and manager have expected.

“I’ve learned not to take anything for granted,” Carpenter said. “You do the best you can because you never know. I pitch every game like it’s my last.”

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