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Carpenter has date with immortality ripped away

July 20, 2018

One of the most fascinating topics in sports involves the never-ending clash between entertainment and winning. In the larger sense, Major League Baseball -- like the NBA, NFL and NHL and the rest -- is about entertainment. These leagues and teams exist because fans love the sports, because we invest

One of the most fascinating topics in sports involves the never-ending clash between entertainment and winning. In the larger sense, Major League Baseball -- like the NBA, NFL and NHL and the rest -- is about entertainment. These leagues and teams exist because fans love the sports, because we invest in our teams, because we care deeply. They go up against countless other forms of entertainment. All the biggest decisions about these games should be about making them more fun and thrilling and vital, because that's the driving purpose.
In the smaller sense, though, the day-to-day sense, these games are about winning. Managers, coaches, players, everyone else involved from moment to moment, they are focused on making all the little decisions necessary to win games, win divisions, win playoffs, win championships. The other stuff -- the bigger stuff -- they will often say, is above their pay grade.
All of which brings us to Friday afternoon and a rather remarkable Cardinals-Cubs game. Well, there wasn't much remarkable about the game itself; it was an 18-5 Cardinals blowout victory. Matt Carpenter is the one who provided the remarkable part. Carpenter led off for the Cardinals with a home run. In the second inning, he homered again. He led off the fourth by smashing a double, and later in the same inning, he doubled again.
Then came the sixth inning, with the Cardinals up 12-1 and two runners on. Carpenter was given the chance to sit it out, but he saw runners on base and decided to take the at-bat. He hit a lazy fly ball to right field. It did not seem to have much carry, but Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward kept drifting back and back and back … and the ball landed in the Wrigley Field basket, Carpenter's fifth hit of the day, his third home run, his fourth run scored, his seventh RBI.
Reminder: This was the sixth inning.
At this point … well, two crazy things happened. But before we get to that, we need to put what Carpenter was doing in perspective. He was guaranteed to get two more at-bats. He already was the second player in baseball history (after Cubs third baseman Kristopher Bryant) to have three homers and two doubles in the same game. He was one home run shy of becoming just the 19th player in baseball history to hit four a game, and he even had a shot at becoming the first to hit five. He was three total bases shy of Shawn Green's record of 19.
Carpenter is a fine player. He was in position to leave behind a mark of immortality. How often does something like that happen to anyone?
Then two crazy things happened, though.
First, Cubs manager Joe Maddon decided to send in position player Thomas La Stella to pitch. The game WAS out of hand. But … well, we'll get back to this one.
Two, the bigger thing, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt pulled Carpenter from the game.
"It's a chance to get him out of the game," Shildt explained afterward of the lopsided score. "We've got a doubleheader tomorrow, and we've just come out of the break and had a long day. After he hit that three-run homer, it just felt right for him and for us."

To this I say: Huh? Wut? There was a chance for history here. There was a chance for one of those moments that baseball fans would talk about forever. There was a chance to give baseball a glorious moment, to break out of the dog days routine and maybe get a player on every front page, to lead off sports talk, a place on "The Tonight Show," who knows? You're telling me that those three extra innings coming off an All-Star break would have been too much for Matt Carpenter to handle? With the chance for something legendary?
"I didn't even realize at the time that it was anything historic or anything crazy," Carpenter said.
Everybody else realized it. Everybody. As soon as Carpenter hit the third homer, I instantly began texting my friends, telling them to tune into the game. Other friends texted me to make sure I was watching. You probably did the same, if you were watching. It was utterly crushing and infuriating when Carpenter came out. I received about 20 texts in 20 seconds from 20 different people featuring 20 different colorful words.
And here we are again, dancing between the small letter drive to win and the capital letter need to make the game as wonderful as possible. Maddon was thinking, no doubt, about the doubleheader Saturday when he decided to wave the white flag and start throwing position players onto the mound. He didn't concern himself with the potential baseball history on the line or his team's role in trying to prevent it. He signaled as clearly as he could that the rest of the game would be silly, with third basemen and catchers pitching, guaranteeing that even if Carpenter DID break records, there would always be a, "Well, he did hit the last home run against a catcher."
"If I take that last at-bat," Carpenter said, "it's going to be versus a position player, and there's not a lot of glory in that anyways."
So, that stunk. Maddon was doing what was best for setting up his team. But it certainly wasn't the best thing for baseball.
Then Shildt pulled Carpenter. His motivation, surely, was the same as Maddon -- to rest Carpenter for the long weekend -- though, oddly, he kept catcher Yadier Molina in the game and moved him to first base, which, I mean, if you're going to rest ANYBODY shouldn't it be Yadier Molina?
Still, even if it was the smart move for the team, if this had been a pitcher with a perfect game, Shildt would not have pulled him. What's the difference? There have actually been more perfect games than four-homer games in history by the score of 23-18. There also has never been a 20-total base game in baseball history.
Shildt took an opportunity away from Carpenter that will never come again. Maybe Carpenter doesn't mind that, maybe he's uninterested in individual achievements, which is noble. But even if he is uninterested -- and my experience in sports suggests that when Carpenter has retired, he will think about this game more than once -- certainly Shildt took away an opportunity from baseball fans, who LIVE for these possibilities.
"I wouldn't have come out," Carpenter's teammate Tommy Pham said. "Nope. You never know what can happen."
You never know. Is it Maddon's or Shildt's job to worry about such things, though? Can they or should they break out of their more focused thinking when a moment like this comes along? People do disagree on that.
I will pass this along: A good friend of mine, a huge Cardinals fans, sent me a text after it became clear what had happened. She wrote: "Sigh. That is this year's Cards; I am upset during a game they're winning 16-1 at Wrigley."

Joe Posnanski is an executive columnist for