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By Kary Booher of the Springfield News-Leader

It was only last June when he walked off the mound here to a standing 'O' from a sea of red — 9,716 to be exact, including some behind the home dugout who held up poster-size letters.

Letters that spelled out C-A-R-P.

Chris Carpenter returned this week to Hammons Field, only for different reasons. Then, the St. Louis Cardinals' ace was trying to prolong a standout career, still chasing the dream.

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Now, he's hoping to help others to chase theirs.

Which is a great thing, of course.

But when we caught up in the Springfield Cardinals clubhouse, I had to ask — when he retired over the winter, why didn't he ever schedule the usual, major announcement we see of our other sports heroes?

We all wanted to tip our caps to him one more time.

"I didn't have a whole lot of interest in that. There was no need for it," said Carpenter, whose career ended more than a year after undergoing a surgery to alleviate a nerve condition in his neck. "If I was a Hall of Fame player, a guy like Tony (La Russa) or something like that where you know you're going into the Hall of Fame, maybe. I had a nice career. I did some nice things and won some World Series titles.

"It didn't need to be a big deal," Carpenter added, before breaking into a smile, "I'm not like that anyways."

Of course, that's why we appreciate him. Humble stars — especially those who pitch until their arm almost falls off, as Carpenter almost did — forever will have a special place in our hearts.

Fortunately, Carpenter, 39, seems mostly at peace with his decision to call it a career.

Just ask about the time he spends now with his 11-year-old and 8-year-old and his bride. Or ask about the ceremonial first pitch he threw manager Mike Matheny a few weeks ago at Busch Stadium.

Anyone remember any ceremonial first pitch? Nondescript would describe most of them. Not Carpenter's surprise heater.

"It was a lot of fun. I had my kids out there with me," Carpenter said. "But I wasn't going to lob it in there and throw it to the back stop."

So now he turns the page and starts a new chapter, this time dropping the term "ace" in favor of the title "special assistant to the general manager."

It's the intriguing part, for everybody. Imagine the knowledge Carpenter could impart as he travels from one minor league club to another.

Heck, his presence alone inspires.

On Tuesday, anyone passing the glass-enclosed workout room would have assumed all the guys in the red T-shirts and red shorts lifting weights were merely farmhands.

Alongside them, however, was none other than Carpenter, who was doing curls and dead-staring down a hallway.

Starry-eyed would be a good way to describe the minor leaguers, especially the pitchers.

Here's a man who won two World Series rings, a Cy Young Award, was part of three National League pennant winners, pitched in three All-Star games, stared down the Phillies in that complete-game domination in the 2012 playoffs and had 144 wins in 15 seasons.

"I actually opened the door for him this morning when I got to the field. He had all of his stuff and he gave me a nod, and I was like …," said right-hander Kurt Heyer, motioning as if he was rolling out a red carpet. "With his presence …. you feel his intensity all over and hopefully that can rub off on some of us."

Carpenter certainly hopes to, but he's not pushing the envelope.

When manager Mike Shildt summoned all players in for a team meeting and ceded the floor, Carpenter's message lasted all of a minute, maybe.

He's here to listen and learn, he told them. And don't be afraid to ask questions.

"First things first is getting to know them. I'm not going to come down here and start telling everybody what to do and how to do it," Carpenter said. "I'm going to get to know the kids personally and then you can just have regular conversation about baseball and experiences and what's going on through their minds and what went on in my mind at times."

Put another way, this could be a fabulous next chapter.

"I'm really looking forward to it. I started getting a little taste of it toward the end there (last season)," said Carpenter, who missed the entire big-league season. "I tried to do the best I could even when I was playing, like with Waino (Adam Wainwright) and the kids that came up while I was there.

"Toward the end, it just got fun to be able to watch and talk and try to help teach as much as I could. I feel like I have something to offer with the experience I've had. It doesn't mean it's always right."

Given those last words, I'd say he's off to a good start.

Kary Booher, Sunday Sports Editor of the News-Leader, can be reached at 836-1180 or by email at kbooher@news-leader.com. Follow him on Twitter at @karybooherNL.

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