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Carpenter's unlikely ascent testament to work ethic

Infielder rewarded with six-year deal after emerging as dependable star for Cards

In one of their first springs together, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa noticed something about Matt Carpenter. Something that stuck in his memory. Something that told him this kid had the right stuff.

"I show up this morning," La Russa said, "and he was already here."

La Russa prided himself on his work ethic, on being the first to arrive, the last to leave. To see a player at work so early meant something. He may not have known it, but in a lot of ways, he'd discovered the very key to everything Carpenter has become.

Today, Carpenter is one of the best players in the game. He led the Majors in runs, doubles and hits last season, finished fourth in National League Most Valuable Player Award balloting and was a member of the NL All-Star team.

Now as Carpenter, who is moving from second base to third in 2014, prepares to begin just his third full season in the big leagues, the Cards have signed him to a six-year, $52 million contract that will run at least through his 33rd birthday.

This is the ultimate endorsement from a franchise respected throughout the industry for the way it does pretty much everything. In Carpenter, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak sees a cornerstone-type player.

There was a time when such a thing didn't seem possible. There were 398 players picked before Carpenter in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. He received a $1,000 signing bonus.

That's because Carpenter had just finished his fifth year at TCU. He went undrafted as a junior after blowing out his elbow and undergoing Tommy John surgery. There were other issues as well.

Some wondered about Carpenter's work ethic and commitment, a notion that seems hilarious now because, as La Russa learned, his will to be great is relentless, his demeanor serious.

Back then, though, scouts had watched as Carpenter's weight ballooned to around 240 pounds at one point during his career at TCU, seemingly not all that serious about the whole thing. Looking back on it now, Carpenter simply was a college kid trying to balance school work, baseball and a social life.

And then Carpenter made a throw across the diamond during his junior season. Something popped in his elbow. Suddenly, he could see his career ending before it began.

It was around that time that TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle sat down with Carpenter and had a tough-love talk. Also in the session were Carpenter's parents, Rick, a respected Texas high school baseball coach, and Tammie.

Schlossnagle was blunt. He told Carpenter that the elbow injury had to be a wakeup call and that he still had the opportunity to have the career he'd dreamed of having.

But he had to change. Change he did.

"My defining moment," Carpenter would later say.

Suddenly, Carpenter worked harder than anyone. He paid attention to diet. Carpenter learned to sweat the small stuff, and Schlossnagle remembers weekend nights when he'd find Carpenter using the indoor hitting facility at TCU.

There may still have been doubts about Carpenter when his named stayed on the board until the 13th round of the 2009 Draft, but the people who'd seen his transformation thought the Cards had gotten a steal.

Carpenter was 23 years old when he played his first game in rookie ball, and by baseball standards, that's old. Also, because he was a 13th-round Draft pick, because he was the 399th player taken, he had to do things to get people's attention. At 23, the clock was ticking.

"People pay attention to the high Draft picks," said Allen Craig, Carpenter's teammate and buddy, who was an eighth-round pick three years earlier. "Guys like us show up worried about getting released from rookie ball. You have to show them something pretty fast or you're gone. And you have to do it better than the high picks."

So, yeah, that was a sweet moment last summer when Carpenter and Craig were both on the NL All-Star team.

Carpenter flew through St. Louis' Minor League system and was in Double-A by the end of his second professional season. A little more than two years after being the 399th pick, Carpenter made his big league debut.

When the Cardinals asked about the possibility of playing different positions, Carpenter began working out all over the diamond. And in 2012, his versatility was a factor in getting him to the big leagues for good.

Cards manager Mike Matheny started Carpenter 67 times that year -- 30 games at first, 22 at third, 10 in right field, three in left field and two at second base.

Last season, the Cardinals made Carpenter their starting second baseman, and he responded by becoming a star. This season, he's back at third, where he spent most of his time at TCU.

Carpenter is one of those players who is a victory for an entire organization. For the scouts who saw something in him. For the instructors who worked with him. For the managers who played him. Carpenter's parents shouldn't be forgotten, either. His dad, the coach, hit him hundreds of balls the last couple of years to prepare him for first, second and, later, third.

In the end, though, this day is about Carpenter, about his will and his dedication and his fanatical commitment to maximize every ounce of his talent.

The Cards are special for an assortment of reasons. Their fans are among the most passionate in the sport. Any player will tell you that playing in St. Louis, especially playing for the home team, is special.

The Cardinals' owner, Bill DeWitt Jr., runs a model franchise. Their general manager, Mozeliak, takes a backseat to no one. The Cards are also special because of guys like Craig and Carpenter, because they believed in themselves when a lot of other people didn't. His is a good day for all of them and a reminder that old-fashioned virtues still matter.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: St. Louis Cardinals, Matt Carpenter