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May 12. 2012 11:02PM

Kevin Gray's On Baseball: Carpenter shocked by Little League intensity


St. Louis Cardinals' David Freese (second from left), Chris Carpenter (middle) and ex-manager Tony La Russa watch Sam Carpenter drop the puck for St. Louis center David Backes (42) and Vancouver center Henrik Sedin (33) before the Blues' opening game of the season last November. La Russa is holding the 2011 World Series championship trophy. (Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE)

Chris Carpenter has faced Barry Bonds and juiced-up big leaguers. He's been involved in bench-clearing brawls and seen it all through 15 years in the majors.

Yet nothing has been quite as unsettling as a recent trip to a Little League diamond in St. Louis, where the 37-year-old father realized how much the culture of youth sports has changed since he was a kid.

The two-time World Series champion, who grew up in Raymond and graduated from Trinity High of Manchester in 1993, has been learning more about the trend of sport specialization and says he is “shocked” at the level of intensity and demands facing talented youngsters.

Carpenter, recovering from a nerve-related shoulder injury, began the year on the disabled list and hopes to return before the postseason. With all this extra time, he's been able to watch his son, Sam, play organized baseball for the first time.

“I'd never seen him play. He's 9 years old, almost 10, and it's crazy competitive. The coach is yelling. It's been an eye-opening experience for me. I was like, wow, I don't know what's going on,” Carpenter said. “I was telling my son to just go out there and have fun. If he wants to pick grass and throw it up in the air, he can. He's 9 years old. That's what it's all about. I don't even have memories of playing baseball at that age. My memories are about hanging out with my friends and stopping at McDonald's after a game or going out for ice cream.”

Looking back, Carpenter believes he protected his throwing arm by playing other sports. He became a standout hockey player for Trinity High, earning All-State honors for three years. He also played indoor soccer, basketball, football and other sports with his brother.

“You did everything you can. It was all four seasons,” said the 2005 National League Cy Young Award winner. “There was no select team. Today, it seems like if you're a soccer player, you're playing all year round and going to camps. It's hard for me to watch what's going now with sports. ... I think you need to be happy. You need to stay home. You need to be in a comfortable place to enjoy your time as a kid.

“I think that's been lost. I'm totally dealing with it for the first time for the last two weeks. It's definitely surprising. It's eye-opening for me and very shocking.”

As a 6-foot-6 senior at Trinity High, he was selected by the Blue Jays in the first round of the June draft. Elbow and shoulder injuries prevented Carpenter from reaching his ceiling with the Blue Jays, but the Cardinals gave him a second chance in 2003. By the time he underwent Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2007, Carpenter already won his first World Series title with the Cards.

“At least I had my arm injuries later on in my career, and I had the opportunity to make it,” said Carpenter, who owns a career 144-92 record and 3.76 ERA. “I was just talking to my rehab coordinator about this. There are so many more injuries nowadays. He's got 17-year-old kids with pages of medical history.”

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INJURY UPDATE: Carpenter has spent the past few weeks strengthening his shoulder and preparing for a throwing program. He said his neck and shoulder feel great, but the true test will come when he picks up a baseball.

“Just a lot of rehab right now. We're taking our time,” he said. “There was a neck issue that affected the nerves in my arm. With my past history, we're slowing everything down and getting everything working properly.”

In 2004, Carpenter was sidelined with a nerve-related injury late in the season and didn't pitch against the Red Sox in the World Series.

“To be honest with you, with everything that's gone on in my career, I'm playing with fire all the time. I'm OK with it. You deal with injuries in this business. You never want an injury to end your career, but you deal with it all the time in this business. Fortunately, we have great trainers and doctors that get you back on the field.”

Asked if he'll be ready to pitch in the 2012 postseason, he said, “I think I'll be back before that, to be honest with you. I just can't answer that question until I start throwing again.”

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ROCKET WATCH: A stealthy Roger Clemens sneaked into the ballpark in the eighth inning on Thursday night and watched the end of New Hampshire's 9-2 loss to the Binghamton Mets. The seven-time Cy Young Award winner and wife Debbie watched their oldest son, Koby, belt a wall-ball double in the ninth inning.

“It's awesome. With all the stuff going on right now, it's great to see any of my family members come out and see me play. They're excited. They love the ballpark,” Koby said. “My mom looked like she was freezing. She said, ‘Is it always this cold?' I told her, yeah, pretty much every day.”

On Friday, the Rocket made a visit to the Fisher Cats clubhouse before the game. Later, Roger and Debbie watched most of the game from the Hilton Garden Inn Patio. Clemens is expected to attend today's game at 1:35 p.m.

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FISHER TRACKS: Ex-Fisher Cats center fielder Darin Mastroianni, now playing for the Twins, had his first major-league hit on Friday night against the Blue Jays. The speed demon laced a bases-loaded single up the middle, scoring two runs in Minnesota's 7-6 win. He finished with two hits and three RBIs.

Staff writer Kevin Gray covers pro baseball for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. His email address is kgray@unionleader.com.


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