The saddest thing about this National League Championship Series is that we don't get to see Chris Carpenter pitch to Yasiel Puig. That's a matchup that could make worlds collide.
Chris Carpenter is perhaps the most beloved Cardinals pitcher of the last decade -- once he officially, officially retires, it's likely you'll see this on the wall of Busch Stadium -- which is funny because he's the player other team's fans just despise. He's angry all the time, he's always cursing and scowling and he's known for aiming fastballs as hitters' ribs just for the sport of it. He's an ornery old cuss. Cardinals fans adore him, but we understand why you don't.
Yasiel Puig is so much fun to watch that you want to put him in a headlock, the way you wrestle with your 10-year-old nephew just get to him to slow down already. I'm not sure there has ever been a more Yasiel Puig play than his triple on Monday off Adam Wainwright. After struggling all series, mostly because of overaggressiveness, he finally squares up a pitch and smashes it deep into right field. He jumps up and flips his bat like he just won the World Series on a walk-off and begins to strut down to first base. Of course, the ball doesn't leave the park … so he sprints for a triple anyway. The play was Peak Puig: ridiculous natural talent, boneheaded self-celebration and enough freak talent to make up for it. He is dumb, youthful exuberance personified. He thinks he will never die.
These two men needed to get together this series.
Chris Carpenter has a long history of disgust with his opponents outwardly displaying emotion, which is sort of rich coming from the guy who did this after the biggest win of his career. His career is peppered with anti-joy protests, often followed by fastballs near someone's ear. My favorite was the time he started a bench-clearing pseudo-brawl after forcing the Astros' Carlos Lee to pop out. Carpenter threw a terrific pitch that fooled Lee, who hit a weak floater to end the inning. Lee, upset with himself, slammed his bat into the ground and started cursing himself out. For reasons that perhaps only Carpenter fathoms, this infuriated Carpenter. He started screaming at Lee, which led to the benches emptying. Carpenter after the game blamed Lee for the ruckus, saying, "He's the one that caused everybody to come out, not me. I was just telling him there's no need for it."
Then-Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, a lightning rod for this sort of thing, said afterward, "Routinely now, hitters pop up a pitch they think they should do (something) with, and they start making noises, and that really is disrespectful to the pitcher. Most of the pitchers just turn around and ignore it. Carp doesn't. And I think Carp's in the right. I think respect should go both ways." (Sometimes, I'll confess, I have flickers of comprehension as to why people might not like the Cardinals.)
Carpenter is a lunatic about this stuff. It is what drives him competitively. It is what makes him him. You learn to love it. You learn to adopt it, because he's yours.
What would Puig make of a person like Carpenter? His teammates and, especially, his manager, keep trying to explain to him why the other team is so angry with him, and he nods like he understands, but it's not clear he does. And why should he? This is sports. This is a game in which young men in their pajamas swing a stick of wood and then run around in a circle. What's the big deal? What's everyone so worked about? You mean to tell me that I get to make tons of money running around in the grass for three hours every night, with every creature comfort I might possibly desire both on and off the field, with thousands of people cheering my name … and I'm supposed to pretend I don't enjoy it. What's wrong with you people? Puig is reasonably confused: There's a right way and a wrong way to run around and play? Well then what is the point of playing?
When interviewed in the dugout during Game 3, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly couldn't stop himself from laughing when talking about Puig, and he said something telling: "He's like a Little Leaguer out there." Puig is 22 years old, so he's only a few years removed from Little League … or would be, anyway, were he not already being forced to play for the Cuban National Team at 16. Considering the circumstances Puig has had in his life, the amazing thing is that he does still enjoy baseball. It is, in the most literal way possible, his escape.
Cardinals fans adore Chris Carpenter because he plays for their team. Dodgers fans adore Yasiel Puig because he plays for their team. They do things in the exact opposite way, but they both do it out of genuine affection for the game. Carpenter thinks it needs to be protected; Puig thinks it needs to be celebrated. Neither is necessarily wrong. But they are diametrically opposed, playing the same game.
They are two sides of baseball. But they are both baseball. If Chris Carpenter weren't hurt this series, we'd get to watch the old school go against the new school, two fierce competitors, out to prove the other wrong, out to defend everything they stand for. You'd be cheering for and against both of them. They're both right and they're both wrong. Baseball takes all kinds. If only we could have seen it. They might have both spontaneously combusted; they might have both just burst into flames. Baseball is a sport that takes all kinds. It takes every kind.
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