'It's going to be weird': Yanks' Carpenter back in St. Louis

Cards legend returns to Busch Stadium for 1st time since playing 11 seasons with club

August 6th, 2022

ST. LOUIS --  was trying his best to separate his emotions from the games to be played over the next three days, and he was mostly succeeding until he was asked about his family’s excitement to be back in St. Louis -- the city where he enjoyed so much success over the first 11 years of his MLB career.

After telling a funny story about his 5-year-old son’s confusion about whether his dad is still a Cardinal or a Yankee, Carpenter’s strong feelings for St. Louis overwhelmed his best efforts and he had to place his hand over his mouth to avoid more raw emotions oozing out his every pore. Twice during his pregame media availability, Carpenter stopped mid-thought, tried swallowing that lump in his throat and composed himself to keep the tears welling in his eyes from streaming down his cheeks.

With the 36-year-old Carpenter being back in a place he never wanted to leave, there was no tough-guy routine or someone casually brushing off the stir of emotions inside him. As someone Cardinals fans fell hard for because of his grinder mentality and his outward emotions, Carpenter admitted that his attempts to contain those emotions likely will fail several times this weekend at Busch Stadium.

“Just stepping off the plane [Thursday] night and being back in St. Louis, that started it all for me,” said Carpenter, now a Yankee in St. Louis for a three-game series this weekend. “My family will be here, and I haven’t seen many of the [Cardinals players] yet, but that will make it hard, for sure. A lot of special memories.

“I was telling somebody earlier that this will be the first three games since 2009 I have not pulled for the St. Louis Cardinals to win. All season, anytime that we’re not playing, and our schedule matches up, I’m watching the guys, checking every box score and legitimately wanting them to win every game. This will be the first three where that’s not the case, but as soon as we leave town, I’ll go right back to being [a Cardinals fan]. It’s going to be weird to compete against them, but being able to separate the emotions will be a challenge.”

Carpenter’s time in St. Louis ended with plenty of challenges, with him hitting .186 and .169 over his final two seasons with the Cardinals. That lack of production was in stark contrast to the first nine years in a Cardinals uniform, when he hit 148 of his 155 home runs with the team, compiled an .835 OPS and came through in the clutch time and again in the playoffs.

Remarkably, Carpenter rediscovered his swing -- but not before being signed to a Minor League free-agent deal by the Rangers, then briefly being out of baseball before landing with the Yankees. With New York, he has somehow shed his struggles of the past two years and feasted on pitching to the tune of a .322 batting average, 15 home runs, 36 RBIs, nine doubles and a ridiculous 1.226 OPS.

Not only has he taken full advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short fence in right field, but he is again swinging with the swagger of a player who led the National League in doubles from 2013-18 (241), including a Cardinals record of 55 in '13.

“I’m 100% happy for him because he was a huge, huge part of this team and he’s someone who’s going to be a red jacket guy here,” said St. Louis pitcher and friend Adam Wainwright, referring to Carpenter being a cinch to make the Cardinals Hall of Fame. “He carried our team for a couple of years almost by himself. He had some swing struggles, but he worked on it. He could have quit and ridden off into the sunset with his head held high, but he still felt like he wanted to play. He retooled himself and the guy still has that amazing ability to put the sweet spot of the bat on the ball.”

Carpenter got to feel the love that his former Cardinals teammates and coaches feel for him when he was embraced before batting practice by St. Louis manager Oliver Marmol, Carpenter’s first Minor League roommate from more than a decade ago. Who Carpenter is at his core is why No. 13 jerseys still dot the stands at Busch Stadium and why Matt Carpenter Field resides in suburban St. Louis, Marmol said.

“This franchise and city rally around hard-working players who grind, bottom line,” said Marmol, who has joked numerous times with Carpenter about his bushy mustache and lack of a beard because of Yankees team rules. “That player who is gritty and every second is [spent] trying to figure out a way to win, Carp was that grinder and a guy who got after it. Whether he was having success, he was in that cage trying to get better and this fanbase appreciated that gritty, hard-working style of player.”

Carpenter said he was fortunate to latch on with the 70-win Yankees, another franchise that takes pride in flying championship banners and is all about winning.

“Success certainly leaves footprints, and the similarities between these two organizations is pretty remarkable,” Carpenter said. “Being in that [Yankees] clubhouse doesn’t feel much different than over there [with the Cardinals], as far as how both teams prepare and are committed to winning. Having spent your whole career in one place, you assume we’re unique and special -- and then you go somewhere else that has a good thing going. It’s obvious why both organizations have been so good for so long because they do a lot of similar things.”