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40 in 40: Carl Edwards Jr.

The Stringbean Slinger and a tale as old as time come to Seattle hoping to work baseball magic.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs
The Stringbean Slinger
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Story telling is as much a part of baseball as the game itself. It’s partly because of the stretches between serious action in games, but it’s also because the game has been around for a long time. Legends and tropes emerged decades ago, fantasies about baseball and its players that aren’t really true in the modern game.

One such legend is the kid from a rural small town. He doesn’t play for a prominent team. He doesn’t have much attention from scouts. One day, on the verge of adulthood, he appears to pitch for a bush league team. The other players laugh at his skinny physique and wonder out loud why he’s there. Then, he pitches, and they can’t believe the talent they’ve just seen.

Another legend, and one so integral to Americana that it is woven tightly within its fabric, is the kid that no one believes in. The kid believes in himself, and through hard work and determination, pulls himself up by his bootstraps.

Meet Carl Edwards Jr. Baseball legend.

Edwards grew up in a small South Carolina town called Prosperity (an easy lob for all sorts of metaphors; I’ll let you do the work on that one). He played on his high school’s team and managed to appear in a few showcase games, but he wasn’t out there on the travel ball circuit wooing Division 1 college coaches and major league scouting departments, as seems de rigeur for modern draft prospects. He caught the eye of one scout, and that scout was all he needed.

The scout was then an assistant junior college baseball coach, searching for recruits to play at Spartanburg Methodist College. Chris Kemp was in the crowd for a Community All-Star Baseball League championship between the Newberry Pirates and the Mapleton Black Sox. The league was referred to as the “bush leagues”, made up of a dozen community teams full of predominantly Black players who never made it big, but never stopped wanting to play baseball. They played on dirt fields throughout their rural communities. During an early game in the championship series, Mapleton was dismantling Newberry. After Newberry’s pitching had been tagged for 14 runs, Carl Edwards had an idea.

Edwards Sr had played baseball at Allen University in his younger years. Now, he worked during the day and played baseball in his free time. He approached the Newberry manager and suggested that his 16-year-old son, who sometimes goes by CJ for Carl Jr, come into the game. He couldn’t be much worse, right? The manager agreed and CJ made his first appearance, in a championship game.

CJ was then throwing in the mid-80s for Mid-Carolina High School. That type of velocity wasn’t seen in the bush leagues. He began to set down the rival Black Sox, one screaming fastball at a time. After 8 innings, the young Edwards had struck out thirteen Black Sox. The Newberry Pirates would go on to win the championship, but it was CJ’s appearance that everyone remembered. He became something of a local legend. “That kid who could really throw.”

The kid could really throw. Throughout high school his velocity rose. He was a strikeout machine, including one game his senior year where he fanned 16 batters. He wasn’t intimidated by important games or tight spots. Despite his success, college coaches and scouts were largely unimpressed. He just didn’t look like he could be a professional baseball player. He stood 6’3” at the end of high school, but barely clocked in at 150 pounds. Chris Kemp moved from assistant junior college coach to a scouting roll for the Texas Rangers. He knew he wanted Edwards, but the scrawny slinger was a tough sell.

In the 48th round of the 2011 draft (a round that no longer exists), Kemp got the guy he wanted. Edwards had considered playing baseball at Charleston Southern University. One of his high school catchers, and best friends, Will Bedenbaugh, had gone there. However, after Will’s freshman year, he was killed in a car accident. Edwards couldn’t conceive of going to the college his friend had been at following his death. (Edwards wrote a beautiful piece for the Players Tribune about Will and their friendship.) He signed with the Rangers organization and headed out for life in the minor leagues.

The Rangers put Edwards on a 6,000 daily calorie diet. Whether it worked or not is a matter of perspective; he has gained 20 pounds since he graduated from high school 9 years ago. Even though it was as struggle for him to put on weight, the player taken 1,464th overall in the draft shot up the prospect rankings. After 2012, he became the Rangers’ #14 prospect, and in 2013 he was Baseball America’s #28 overall prospect. His stock rose so much that he became the negotiating point in 2013 when the Rangers wanted to acquire Matt Garza from the Chicago Cubs. They initially did not want to include Edwards in the trade, but the Cubs won out.

Edwards made his major league debut for the Cubs on September 7th, 2015, a few days after his 24th birthday. At the beginning of the 2016 season, he bounced between Chicago and AAA Iowa. At the end of June, he returned to Chicago and stuck. He earned his first save in September, and in October made his first postseason appearances, pitching for the Cubs on their World Series run that year. He struck out the side in the sixth inning of Game 3. He appeared in the 10th inning of that magical Game 7 when the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years. He sprinted across the field with the W flag and must have felt on top of the world. Not even a full season in the major leagues, and the Stringbean Slinger was already a champion. Another anecdote for his legendary story.

(There’s a great video on The State’s website featuring Edwards talking about growing up and his family that I cannot embed here. Click for cute little league pictures!)

He pitched well in 2017 and 2018 for Chicago, and got a few more postseason appearances under his belt and settled in as a major league short reliever. 2019, however, was a rough turning point for him. He had some shoulder inflammation in 2018 that necessitated a stay on the Injured List. Last year, he spent time in AAA and had three separate Injured List stints between Iowa, Chicago, and San Diego. He struggled with command and at the deadline the Cubs sent him to the Padres. Following the season, the Padres outrighted him to AAA, but he opted to become a free agent instead.

We all know that Jerry Dipoto loves a reclamation project, so he grabbed the 28-year-old and signed him to a one-year incentive laden contract. Dipoto said of the singing, “He’s a pretty interesting bounce-back candidate for us. We think he has a lot of good things to offer us.”

Maybe Dipoto still had this outing on his mind:

A couple problems led to Edwards’ struggles last season. First, there’s the injuries. He had injuries to both his throwing and non-throwing shoulders last season. Second, before the season he worked on changing his delivery. He put in a toe-tap delay in his windup after studying Kenley Jensen’s delivery. He prepared for the season and pitched through spring training this way only to find out when the regular season started that his delivery was illegal. He had made the change hoping to gain more command on his pitches. Whether it was injuries or the delivery change, in 2019 his velocity dropped and his already dubious command slipped further away. (Kate has an excellent breakdown of his troubles here.)

He grew up learning to pitch in his backyard, with his father telling him, “Hit the target, hit the target.” With luck and help from a Mariners staff that takes its reclamation projects seriously, he may very well hit the mitt consistently. If he can also miss the bats, he’s got a chance to help the Mariners’ season feel less awful, and maybe become good trade bait at the deadline.

After learning his backstory and knowing he’s already helped the Cubs to a long-yearned for championship, I want his legend to grow and for Carl Edwards Jr. to stick around a few years and bring the Mariners a championship of their own. Baseball legends and tropes can feel tired and without connection to modern baseball. Edwards brings both into the 2020 season, looking for redemption.

Hit the target, miss the bat, add to the legend.