Forced Out: Chris Carpenter the latest to have injuries derail career

There are really only two ways to go out in sports.  That's one of the biggest differences between normal jobs and the jobs of professional athletes.  In professional athletics, a player can finish his career on top of the world, in the middle of the pack, or at the bottom, but if that player chose the time to call it quits and wasn't forced, he's generally happy.  The flip side to that is being forced out.  It's not quite the same as being fired, but injuries can bring the end to a career just the same as a firing can.  No player wants to go out that way.

In the real world, the non-sports world, people choose when they are done with their profession.  They plan, they save, and they wait.  And wait.  And wait.  Then one day, the office holds a small party, wishes the retiree well, then goes about their jobs as normal, just waiting for their turn.  In sports, it doesn't happen that way.  There will be no gold watch (unless he buys it) if Chris Carpenter is forced to retire.  There will be no cake and a banner hung in the corner of a dimly-lit conference room.  There will simply be sadness and questions of what-if.  And so it goes for so many of baseball's greats.

Yesterday afternoon, the St. Louis Cardinals held a press conference.  The exact nature of the conference was not made known to the media.  However, as the time for the presser came near, word started to trickle out that the news was going to be about Chris Carpenter, and he may be retiring.  It worked out that the press conference left us in limbo more than anything.  Carpenter won't pitch in 2013 because of lingering problems related to the same injury he had prior to last season, but he's not yet announced his retirement.  He is certainly considering it though.

The St. Louis Cardinals' ace had tearfully notified the team of his condition late last week.  He wanted so desperately to be able to pitch that he had told members of the media in January that he would be ready when the season began.  It was a lie, but mostly a lie Carpenter told to himself to keep from facing the reality of the situation.  His career may very well be over.

Last season, Carpenter missed most of the year after being diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.  The condition is what kept Texas Rangers' reliever Mike Adams from pitching down the stretch.  It is a nerve issue that causes weakness in the arms and hands.  In Carpenter's case, the injury lingered from spring through July before he was finally diagnosed.  Carpenter underwent surgery in July to release the compressed nerves, and he made his return to the mound on September 21st.

Carpenter was far from his ace-like self when he pitched last season.  In total, he made three regular seasons starts.  The Cardinals didn't win any of those starts.  He lasted six innings in two of the starts, but as the postseason came around, Carpenter couldn't make it through as many innings as he would normally.  Carpenter made three postseason starts and lasted more than four innings just once.

But that was all just him adjusting, getting back into the swing of things.  Right?  It turns out, it was more of a sign than anything else.  It was a sign that maybe Carpenter had not yet healed from his TOS surgery like everyone thought he had.  Maybe it was a sign that there were lingering problems that needed to be addressed.  Maybe it was a sign that his career could be coming to a close.

No one wants it to happen.  Chipper Jones blew out his knee in 2011, but wouldn't allow that injury to dictate the final chapter of his career.  He came back in 2012, dominated, and went out on his own terms.  Mariano Rivera plans to do the same.  But the truth is, those opportunities, the ones in which an athlete can take the adversity of an injury and sling it over his shoulder while he fights to come back, are rare.  As a career progresses, nagging injuries catch up.  The body breaks down.  Ask Tony Gwynn.  Ask Ken Griffey Jr.  Ask any number of great players who, despite their illustrious careers, probably didn't go out the way they would have hoped.  It's the nature of the beast.

The un-mentioned side-effects of a game that strains the body in ways it was never meant to be strained catch up to a lot of players.  When that happens, thoughts of retirement creep in.  They make nest in the darkest parts of the brain.  They fight off those thoughts that maybe rehab will allow the player one more chance, or that playing through the pain is a possibility.  Need proof?  Ask Scott Rolen or Lance Berkman.

Now, Chris Carpenter will be left alone with his thoughts.  The darkness battling the light.  Hope battling reality.  He will make his decision soon.  And it seems the darkness will win out.  But every so often, a glimmer of hope rises up and inspires us all.  That may not be what happens with Carpenter, but that hope is the very reason he did not announce his retirement yesterday.

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