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Only Just Begun: Bubba Carpenter's nine years in the minors and his glorious shot at the show

click to enlarge Bubba Carpenter prepares to keep the Sky Sox winning tradition alive. - SCOTT LARRICK
  • Scott Larrick
  • Bubba Carpenter prepares to keep the Sky Sox winning tradition alive.

Coors Field," he told the taxi driver.

In all the whirlwind of a quick plane trip from Tennessee, where the Colorado Springs Sky Sox had been battling the Nashville Sounds, it was Bubba Carpenter's first chance to digest the red letter day he'd worked toward for nearly ten years.

Carpenter got a pinch hit single in his first Major League at bat that day, helping to secure victory over the Giants. Three days later, he hit his first big league homer to win an 11th inning nail-biter in Shea Stadium.

"Everyone in the minors thinks he has the chance to play or he wouldn't be there," Carpenter told the reporters clamoring around his locker in New York. Carpenter had spent his career in the Yankees minor league system before signing with Sky Sox and finally getting his chance with the Rockies. "I always thought I'd hit a home run in Yankee Stadium," he told the Indy as the post-game frenzy died down. "I didn't think I'd be doing it in Shea."

A month later, Carpenter sat down with the Indy to talk about the 900-plus game path he took to become the 100th Sky Sox player to play for the Rockies. His chance came when Larry Walker went on the disabled list in May, and his respectable showing in 15 games contributed to the surge that propelled the Rockies into a pennant race for the first time in over two years.

The journey started in Fayetteville, Arkansas, rooting for the Texas Rangers as a kid "just because my grandpa rooted for them" and for his hometown University of Arkansas Razorbacks, "the only major team in the whole state."

But Carpenter was a Yankees fan. "I had an old beat-up Yankee hat that I wore all the time until it finally fell apart. I had Mattingly posters all over the wall in my bedroom. He was kind of my idol."

He and his brothers lived and breathed baseball. "When we were old enough to walk we already had a ball and a bat in our hands. My poor parents toted us all over the country," he recalled, marveling at the miles his parents logged bringing them to games in four different leagues.

Carpenter went to the Southwest Conference championships in '89 and '90 with the University of Arkansas. After his last college game, he was approached by a scout for the Yankees, who soon made him an offer.

The Yankees were in a "rebuilding" phase, but Carpenter couldn't resist the offer. He spent the next nine seasons in the Yankee organization, and he still raves about the quality of the Yankee organization, noting that the class "filters all the way down to rookie ball.

"They bring everybody together after they sign them and they tell them about the Yankee tradition. Their big thing is it's a privilege to wear the pinstripes. They preach that to you from day one."

Carpenter believes the "Yankee Way" distinguishes its players. "Just the way people carry themselves. The way you look. You have to wear your pants a certain way, you have to shave, your hair has to be a certain way, no jewelry. They enforce all those rules in the minor leagues. I used to think, "Come on, let's just go out and play hard.' But you realize if you look like a professional and people treat you like a professional, you're going to play like a professional."

His enthusiasm carries over to the new Rockies system. "When [General Manager] Dan O'Dowd and [Manager] Buddy Bell came in and took over, there was a change. They run the organization a lot like the Yankees. Everything's professional. Everything's first class. The way they want you to play the game, the way they want you to act and look."

Experience has taught Carpenter to recognize the signs of a strong organization. "From the coaching staff to the players. I'm big on team chemistry. The chemistry's unbelievable on that [Rockies] team. You get a lot of good guys together that want to win and play hard and you're going to have team chemistry."

"It's like they're a little family," Carpenter says of the new atmosphere at the resurgent parent club. "Everyone's talking, laughing, getting along. Even in the dugout, during the game. Everyone wants to win. That's why they come back from behind so many games. Everyone just has that fire inside of them. It rubs off; it's just contagious."

On an individual level, Carpenter believes self-confidence is key to success in the monors. "You have to know deep down inside that you can play in the big leagues, or you're wasting your time and everyone's time that you're playing with. Every time I've started to doubt that, I've struggled."

Carpenter reached his lowest point two years ago, when he spent two and a half months on the disabled list with an injured foot. He made a convincing turn around, having his best overall season in '99, hitting .283 with 22 HRs and 81 RBI.

While he hit a passable .222 with 3 home runs in 15 games for the Rockies, Carpenter experienced a slump where he had difficulty hitting his weight upon his return to the Sky Sox.

"I'm just starting to come out of it right now," Carpenter said last week. "When I first got sent down, I struggled for a few days to get back in the groove. I'm just starting to hit the ball hard again. I'm spending a lot of time in the cage with Eppy, [Coach] Jim Eppard, and I'm starting to feel it again. It's a great feeling, because you step up to the plate, and you know you're going to hit the ball hard somewhere. There's no better feeling in the world than that." A couple days later, Carpenter emerged from his slump with a single and a triple off the wall against the Redbirds.

Carpenter still searches out opportunities to learn. "I learned something in every at bat in the majors," he assures, but he is tight lipped about the specifics. "There might be some pitchers out there I don't want to reveal that to."

He will reveal what he learned from his Rockies teammates, however. "Those guys never give up. They're always battling, no matter what the circumstance. I'd like to bring some of that back here."

Carpenter deftly dodges questions about the notorious hijinx of minor league ballplayers, using the evasive techniques of a politician to avoid talking about his own role in any illicit shenanigans. He admits only to "witnessing" the bright red results of someone spray painting an outfield image of a bull at the home of the Durham Bulls, altering the original artwork to make it anatomically correct.

"I never had to wear a little mini-skirt or anything," Carpenter said, a mixture of relief and envy in his voice at escaping the rookie initiation at the hands of Major League veterans. "I had to sing on the team plane in front of everybody," he revealed. It was Walker's idea, so Carpenter let loose with a rendition of "Oh, Canada," honoring Walker's homeland.

With a solid starting outfield and depth on the bench, Carpenter isn't counting on an immediate trip back to Coors Field. He's taking all the extra batting practice he can, working at the consistency he knows he needs before securing a spot on the big league roster.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it every day," he says of the ever-present hope of another shot at the big leagues that keeps him and his Sky Sox teammates striving day after day. "But once I step onto the field, all my focus is on winning today's game."

-- owen@csindy.com


CAPSULE

Sky Sox vs. Calgary Cannons

Sky Sox Stadium

Tue. July 4, 6:05 p.m. Wed. - Thur., July 5 - 6, 7:05 p.m.

Call 591-SOXX

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