One of those phrases, the 'Smart Player' the 'Intelligent Ballplayer' gets overused. It gets used for the guy who takes the extra base, or gets the easy out. Sure, those are smart plays. They help a team win, but does that really make them smart? Are they that much more intelligent, or are they just good, old school baseball players?
Chris Carter is a smart player. He is an intelligent player. You'll notice I didn't use the quotation marks.
"I'm taking a physics class during the offseason," Carter said after a round of batting practice back in early October, during the Instructional Leagues in Tucson, "it's just something for me to do, keep me thinking."
For most of the players down in 'Instructs,' as they are called, "something to do" often involves two controllers, Tiger Woods, a Playstation 2. For Chris Carter, "something to do involves equations, gravity, molecular dimensions.
That is, of course, in his spare time.
It's one of those things that you kind of expect, after all, Carter did go to Stanford, one of the premier universities in America. But you're still standing on a baseball field, talking to a guy in uniform who just sent six of the 20 pitches he saw over the right field fence. There is a stereotype of the 'dumb ballplayer.' There is also a stereotype of the 'smart ballplayer.' There are a couple here, in instructs, who qualify. Trey Hendricks went to Harvard. Dan Pohlman to Northwestern. Are these the kids who stand in the right field corner trying to figure out the linear trajectory of the balls leaving the bats?
"No, it's not like that," Carter says shyly, "we're not the kids in the corner playing chess. But I guess there are things I can talk to Trey about that I can't necessarily talk to everyone else about."
Like what? Are you two discussing the break on a curveball? Physics wise the best way to round the bases? Discussing the math involved in judging a fly ball?
"Stem cell research." Carter says. There is a pause, a disbelieving reporter is trying to process. I'll be honest, I (this is the reporter talking) kind of like being the smartest guy on the field. It evens out the fact that I always wanted to play Major League Baseball. That I always wished I'd be manning second base in at Chase Field, or Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, someday. It's my little comeuppance, that now, way past a prime that wasn't good enough to make it anyway, I'd be the smartest guy on a field of people good enough to make it.
And then this kid starts talking about stem cell research.
I have no choice, I've got to bail, to abandon my dreams of being the smartest kid on the field. I didn't go to Stanford, I can't spell physics (thank you Mr. Spellchecker) much less understand it. Let's get back to something I know, but we can't just drastically change the subject, there's got to be some sort of segue...
"You know, I can't say anything bad about Stanford. I made a lot of friends there. I got a great education there. There are people I met there that I hope I know, and talk to, the rest of my life."
Ah, here we are, controversy, a little dirt, something to make the subject uncomfortable. We dig.
"I didn't have the best time in baseball there," Carter says...and that's all he says. So we fill in the blanks.
A quick series of phone calls finds a former teammate of Carter's, a guy who now pitches in a big league team's minor league system. He played with Carter, he saw what went on, and he's willing to talk.
"Chris came to Stanford for the education. That's the bottom line," our player says, "Don't get me wrong, he loves baseball, and the fact that Stanford has such a good program was part of it," he trails off, choosing his words. "Let me put it this way, for 95% of the guys in the minors, if you took baseball away from them, they'd be lost, with Chris, it's not that way, he'd be fine, he'd probably be a doctor."
"I was PreMed at Stanford." Carter says, looking down.
Wow, a doctor.
"I'd be a cardiovascular surgeon."
Excuse me? Yes, I'll be honest
It's something that happens often when talking to Carter. He's just a shy kid. It's not like he's embarrassed about his education. He's embarrassed that somebody wants to talk to him. Shy, unassuming, and yet he hit .297 for the season with 30 homers and 115 RBI. Chris Carter may be a smart ballplayer.
But first and foremost Chris Carter is a ballplayer.
"First base, left field, that's really the only question with Chris," Tennessee Smokies Manager Tony Perezchica says of Carter, "because he's going to hit. There's no question about that."
Perezchica saw that first hand. After Carter played 103 games in the Hi-A California League with the Lancaster JetHawks he finally got the call to move up to Double-A. Typically the most difficult adjustment in the minors, Carter seemed not to notice the change in level. In Hi-A he hit .296 with 21 homers and 85 RBI. In 67 fewer games at Double-A Carter hit .297 with 10 homers and 30 RBI.
So much for tough adjustments.
"Honestly, it was easier for me hitting in Double-A than Hi-A," Carter says, "There was a lot more off-speed stuff in Hi-A, but the pitchers were always around the plate, so you knew on almost every pitch it was going to be something you could take a swing at."
For many in the Diamondbacks organization it was expected that Double-A was where Carter was supposed to fail. For much of the season at Lancaster Carter was overshadowed by Miguel Montero, who simply went off, leading the minors in batting average, runs scored, RBI and home runs for a good part of the first half. In the second half of the season the attention was again deflected by the arrival of Stephen Drew, who signed just as Montero left.
Carter didn't mind, he doesn't need to be the star.
"Those guys are great players. Who could blame anybody for paying attention to Miguel, he was just on fire. And when Drew showed up, everybody knew he was the man. I just go out there and play ball."
That, in and of itself, is a change for Carter.
At Stanford, Carter was a highly recruited prospect. A lefty with decent speed, great power, and incredible bat control. When Stanford came calling, Carter was honored and excited. It was a school with academic programs that excited Carter as much as its top tier baseball program. There was only one thing Carter asked for from Stanford.
"All I asked the coaches was to not make me switch to the 'Stanford swing.'
For those of you who don't know, wait a couple of months. The next time FOX SportsAZ is showing a Pac-10 game, chances are Stanford will be involved. Watch the Stanford lineup. There will be lefties and righties, different stances, different types of hitters, but once the swing starts, you'll see the same thing over and over again. The same swing, legs bent, bat coming through the zone flat, a slight tuck. It's one of the things that makes the program so good, the same swing, the same fundamentally sound swing, over and over and over again.
That was not, and is not, Chris Carter's swing.
"I had developed my own swing, and it was working for me. I'd played against some really good pitchers, guys who threw hard, and I had worked hard on my swing, making sure I could cover the plate, making sure I could turn on hard fastballs."
And it wasn't the Stanford swing.
"They told me that wasn't a problem, that they wanted me, my swing, my game."
And that was all Carter needed to hear. Stanford's academics couldn't be beat. Their baseball program was top notch. For Carter it was all he could ask for. And then he got to Stanford. It started almost the immediately. The conversion. The Stanford swing. Carter was having none of it.
And so Stanford was having none of Carter. He didn't play, he didn't start, the coaches said the left handed hitter couldn't hit left handed pitching. They said he had an attitude problem, and when the scouts came, and asked about Carter, they said there was nothing to see there. He dropped all the way to the 17th round in the 2004 draft, where the Diamondbacks took a chance on a kid who 'couldn't hit lefties.'
There has to be venom, be anger. Especially now that Carter has rocketed up the Diamondbacks system, has proven that he can hit all pitching (he hit .300 against lefties at Hi-A, just .296 at Double-A), and hit it hard.
"I've got nothing bad to say about Stanford," Carter says, "I made a lot of friends there, I got one of the best educations I could ask for, and I got it on scholarship. I had a great experience in college. It just wasn't all about baseball for me."
What? No bile. No venom, no anger.
"I don't think about things that way. I don't worry about what happened in the past. Coach Plummer gave me the opportunity to play everyday, against lefties and righties, and once I had the chance I wasn't going to let it pass me by."
That's the truth. After a tough first month Carter turned it on, and once he got his feet wet, there was no stopping him. In August of his first pro season Chris Carter made Mike Rizzo and the rest of the Diamondbacks scouting department look like geniuses. He hit .354 with nine home runs and 33 RBI in just 96 at bats.
Was there ever a point, when he was sitting on the bench at Stanford, not allowed to play, when Chris Carter thought, 'you know what, I'll just go be a doctor.'
"Deep down, I never doubted myself," Carter says, "I won't try and say it wasn't tough, but everyday I have ever come to the park I have felt like I had an opportunity. If I got one at bat, or one ball hit to me in the field, I felt like I had an opportunity. I worked my..." he pauses, he's about to use a word that nearly every person in the world uses, but he's not going to do it, "I worked really hard at Stanford, in school, on the diamond, I worked hard. I had a lot of friends who helped me, and I still have friends who help me. I'll work as hard as I can, I'll try to get better, as a baseball player, as a person, everyday."
That's determination, it's the type of determination that allowed Carter to rise above unfortunate circumstances at Stanford, but what about now, what about the pro game?
"I'm down here [in instructs] to work on my defense, because I never want to be looked at as a one dimensional player. I'll hit third, I'll hit fourth, I'll play first, I'll play the outfield. Everyday I step on a field I'm looking to help my team. You say to me that all of a sudden people are going to expect me to hit 40 home runs a year. That's fine. If I can hit 40 great, but what I want to do is help my teams win. I'm going to work hard, work on the things that I need to get better at, work on everything. I want to be a player with no flaws, and to do that I've got a lot of work."
For a guy taken in the 17th round, with few if any expectations, Chris Carter has certainly impressed. He's part of a crowded outfield in the Diamondbacks program, and he'll have to prove that he can do what he did late in 2005, hit like it's going out of style, for an entire season. But if it comes down to work, and work ethic, Carter's covered. If it comes down to smarts, baseball or otherwise, Carter's covered. If you're looking to bet against a prospect, Carter might not be the way to go.
"I talk to guys from Stanford, guys who are in the minors now, and they all tell me the same thing, just relax, go out there and play. I took that to heart, if I put the work in off the field, and have fun on it, I think good things are going to happen."
They sure are.