>“Trains leave without you”
I had a teacher in high school who liked to say that in response to just about any teenage excuse. Turn in an assignment late because the school’s printers started billowing smoke? “Trains leave without you.” Forget the permission slip or the dues for the class trip? “Trains leave without you.” You arrive a half-hour late to school because the train you take actually does leave without you (thanks, Metro-North)? “Trains leave without you.” Yeah, I noticed . . .
I always thought it was a funny saying. Yes, trains do leave without you, and it’s often not even your own fault when you they do — sometimes they inexplicably leave 10 minutes early, again, thank you Metro-North — but there is almost always another train that will get you there a half-hour later. Maybe you show up a little bit late, but at the end of the day, no one really remembers who got there when, as long as you got there eventually. I guess it was just his own way of saying time waits for no man. Opportunities slip away, sometimes by no fault of your own.
Occasionally, this teacher would change the saying to become “ships leave without you”, but honestly . . . who still uses ships as an actual mode of transportation? Why are there so many boating metaphors still permeating our speech, anyway? I liked the train version better.
Anyway, that saying makes me think of Chris Carter, who has missed a lot of trains over his career thus far — and it’s not necessarily his fault that he hasn’t made any of them. Just, you know, things happen, people get in your way on the escalator, and the train leaves without you on it. While it’s generally not a big deal if you miss one train, at a certain point, you miss too many trains and then it does get to be too late. Carter is close.
Chris Carter was drafted in the 17th round of the 2004 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, the same year they picked Stephen Drew, Garrett Mock, Ross Ohlendorf, and Mark Reynolds. Ohlendorf, who is more famous for his intelligence than for his pitching, was picked coming out of Princeton, Reynolds out of UVA, and Carter from Stanford, so it appears the Diamondbacks were looking to increase the team’s average SAT score for some reason. Anyway, Carter rose from low A ball, to regular A ball, to high A ball, to AA ball over two seasons before settling in for a full season at AAA ball in 2006, when he hit .301/.395/.483 with 19 home runs for Tuscon in the Pacific Coast League. The next season, Carter was again begging to be called up, batting .324/.383/.521 with 18 home runs. But the Diamondbacks had Conor Jackson entrenched in the first base/left field role at the major league level. So Carter decided he had already missed the train to Arizona and requested a trade.
And traded he was. Twice. On the same day. Carter was sent to the Nationals — Grand Central Station for players looking to hop on a train to the majors — only to be immediately flipped to the Red Sox — Amtrak, or something, in this metaphor — as a player-to-be-named-later, completing an earlier deal for Willie Mo Pena. So Carter now found himself buried in possibly the deepest organization in baseball, which in 2008 had Kevin Youkilis and Sean Casey at first, Manny Ramirez and Jacoby Ellbury in left, and David Ortiz at DH, and then had Youkilis, Casey Kotchman, Victor Martinez, Mark Kotsay, and Adam LaRoche all playing just first base at some point in 2009. So Carter found himself in an even worse situation in Boston. More trains were leaving without him everyday.
Still, Carter managed to get himself 26 big league plate appearances over two years with the Red Sox before being sent to the Mets in the Billy Wagner deal. The Mets would have played him somewhere over the final month of the season — except that the Yankees claimed Carter when the Red Sox tried to pass him through waivers, just to irritate the Red Sox, and effectively delayed the trade till after the season. Carter was kept from getting to play with the September 2009 Mets, which maybe is a gift in its own way, but still, another train left without Carter.
And now its spring 2010 and he’s behind Daniel Murphy, Ike Davis, and Mike Jacobs on the Mets first base depth chart. The train is leaving again, and he’s probably not going to be on it.
I always wondered how players get to be Mike Hessman – in other words, at what point does a player cease to be a prospect, and instead just becomes minor league depth? Mike Hessman is in camp with the Mets this spring. He is 32-years-old, he plays somewhere on the infield maybe — it’s really not important where — and has hit 311 home runs over 14 minor league seasons. He is the Toledo Mud Hens all time leader in home runs, making him “Mr. Mud Hen.” In fact, last year, on September 4th, Hessman began a game as catcher for Toledo, ended it on the mound, and in between spent an inning at every position on the diamond. So, you know, I’m not sure he’s considered that serious of a prospect anymore. For some reason, I can’t see the Mets doing that with Ike Davis. But Hessman is still chugging along as an organizational mercenary.
On the other side, you have the Daniel Murphy’s of the baseball world, the ones who happen to be in the right organization at the right time and get a real chance to show what they can do at the Major League level. The ones who happen to wander onto a train at the right moment. I’m not saying the Murphy is equal in skill to Mike Hessman — because Mike Hessman just hits a lot of home runs, and that’s really it — but on another team, Murphy is likely nothing more than organizational depth. Murphy just happens to be in the one with no organizational depth.
Chris Carter seems to be in the realm of neither here nor there — not quite old enough to be just organizational depth, but not really a prospect anymore either. I wonder how many trains someone like Carter has left to get on. I wonder how many others there have been who probably could have performed in the major leagues, but never got a chance for one reason or another. I wonder when it really is too late for someone. So much of life seems to come down to nothing more than serendipity. Which can be depressing, in a Bruce Springsteen “Glory Days” kind of way.
But you know what? Chris Carter gets to play baseball for a living. Maybe not in the way he dreamed about it, and maybe a lot of trains left without him. But he gets to play baseball, and I’d bet that’s pretty cool. Right?