After winding road, Roycroft finally home to roost with Redbirds

June 10th, 2024

This story was excerpted from John Denton's Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. LOUIS -- As the Redbird flies, there’s about 100 yards between the Cardinals' bullpen and the iron-studded gates beyond center field where relief pitcher Chris Roycroft once pressed his face to look longingly at Busch Stadium in 2021.

Metaphorically speaking, there might as well have been a million miles between those two Busch Stadium spots, considering the long and winding journey Roycroft traveled to reach the coveted spot where he is now a valued Cardinals reliever.

“I was just talking to one of my best friends, and we were reminiscing about walking down [Clark Ave.], looking through those gates and being like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to play here one day!’” Roycroft said of his days pitching for the Joliet Slammers of the independent Frontier League. “Now, it’s a reality for me, and it’s still hard to believe.”

Roycroft’s journey is hard to believe considering all the twists, turns and out-of-the-way stops he made enroute to accomplishing this dream of pitching in the big leagues. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, Roycroft thought his path to pro ball would be on a basketball court, where he was a face-up forward at Aurora College in suburban Chicago. He also did a little pitching for the Division III Spartans, going 11-0 in his first three seasons across 41 games.

After college, Roycroft pitched for the Green Bay Booyah of the independent Northwoods League for a season. However, he was out of the sport for two years throughout the COVID-19 pandemic before White Sox hitting initiatives coach Devin DeYoung and former Aurora baseball teammate and White Sox prospect A.J. Gill convinced Roycroft to attend a tryout camp at the Bo Jackson Elite Sports Dome in Lockport, Ill., in 2021. Roycroft was one of the few who showed up that day, and he threw four innings in front of a handful of MLB and independent league scouts.

Chris Roycroft signs autographs for fans on Sunday before St. Louis' 5-1 win over the Rockies.

“They knew I was training and trying to get back into baseball, and I hit 97 [mph] on the radar gun,” Roycroft remembered. “I was the only guy there, so I got a lot of work. At that time, I didn’t have a team and didn’t have a job.

“When I hit 97, Devin came up to me and said, ‘Who are you?’ Eventually, I signed with the Slammers, and that got me started in pro ball.”

While pitching for Joliet, Roycroft figures he cleared maybe $400 a month after taxes. To help make ends meet, he taught pitching lessons to kids either in the daytime before night games or at night following day tilts. Besides striking out the side in his pro debut before about 100 fans, Roycroft said one of his funniest memories from those carefree days was when the air conditioning went out on Joliet’s team bus … during a long drive back from the East Coast.

“We were driving on the highway, so we opened up all the windows and the little hatch on the ceiling. That made it a little better, but we all had our shirts off because it was like a sauna in there,” he said.

After Roycroft struck out 86 batters in 86 1/3 innings between 2021-22 with Joliet, the Cardinals saw enough to sign the hard-throwing right-hander to a Minor League contract on June 29, 2022. A year later, he had progressed through three levels of the farm system to put himself on the MLB radar.

Then, on May 7 -- with parents, Dan and Maggie, and siblings Corey and Makense, looking on -- Roycroft was finally inside Busch Stadium and pitching for the Cardinals. In his MLB debut, Roycroft struck out superstar Francisco Lindor on a 96.8 mph sinker, surrendered a Statcast-projected 411-foot homer to Pete Alonso and steadied himself by retiring Harrison Bader and Brett Baty. That work was impressive to Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, and it led to a bigger role for Roycroft.

“Anytime you have adversity and you decide not to quit, that does something for you,” Marmol raved. “Few people want to work through the hard, and when you do, it builds up parts of your personality that allow you to do it again and again. That’s a real thing in this game.”

The toughness Roycroft gained from his circuitous route is a real thing, and it’s given him the sense that he can accomplish anything.

“I have to remind myself, ‘Hey, you’re the best at what you do!’” said Roycroft, who has 12 strikeouts in eight appearances for the Cardinals. “The path I took gave me the perspective that I have to work a million times harder. That’s what I did, and that’s what got me where I am today.”

An outsider no more, Roycroft is inside those iron gates and living his dream.