A goodly number of Georgians know this seat of Hall County as the “Poultry Capital of the World,” but likely don’t know, as well as many residents, that the city’s original name was, “Mule Camp Springs.” That could well be the most appreciated name change in our state’s history. Gainesville prides itself on its versatility and progressive lifestyle along with its sports heritage, among other points of pride. A number of accomplished athletes have sprung from these parts. Tommy Aaron won the Masters in 1973. Football is king around here in the fall, and many celebrated players have made a name for themselves with their gridiron feats: Preston Ridlehuber at Georgia, Deshaun Watson at Clemson and Billy Lothridge and Billy Martin at Georgia Tech are among the many from here with bulging scrapbooks.
Then there is Cris Carpenter, who was a record setting punter with the Bulldogs. His pitching acumen kept him in the Big Leagues for over eight years, principally with the St. Louis Cardinals. He may be the ultimate specialist to wear the Red and Black. In the mind’s eye of many of us, we can see his punts soaring up, up and away at Sanford Stadium and then in the spring, his relief pitching was wrist snapping musical. He ranks 4th in career punting average as a Georgia punter (44.1) and could have punted in the National Football League. (He lost in the finals of the NFL’s punt, pass and kick contest, twice. “I was okay passing and punting but kicking off a tee caused me problems,” he remembers.) “I miss football every day of my life,” he continues, “but I thought baseball offered me the best opportunity and am confident I made the best decision.” He played eight years, mostly with the Cardinals and Rangers but also spent brief time with the Marlins and the Brewers.
A couple of managers along the way tried to turn him into a starting pitcher, but he settled in as a relief pitcher and finished his big league career with an earned run average of 3.91, winning 27 games in relief and posting 252 career strikeouts. He often returns to St. Louis where he was warmly received as a Cardinal alumnus.
“I happened to have been drafted (first round) by one of the best franchises in baseball. Everything about the organization is first class. St. Louis is known for having the greatest fans. The Cardinals have won more World Series championships than anybody but the Yankees. There is great pride in being a Cardinal. They really treat their former players with great respect. It is a good feeling to return to St. Louis for a weekend series.” Good feelings also ensue when he enjoys a football game between the hedges. “I can remember taking the field that first time. It was overwhelming. Playing before 82,000 fans prepared me for big crowds in major league baseball. I was so fortunate to be able to play two sports in college and the excitement of Saturday afternoon between the hedges is something I never felt in any other sport,” Chris recalls. He married his high school sweetheart Jane Livingston and knew that when his baseball career ended, he would return to Gainesville where he embarked on a second career, coaching and teaching. When he retires from teaching, he will benefit from the state teacher retirement system. With his MLB retirement package, the best in professional sports, he can enjoy the laid back living of Gainesville with fall Saturday opportunities in Athens along with an occasional trip to St. Louis for a Budweiser, a Cardinal game and recall of his days in the sun as a big leaguer.
Travel has always ranked high with Carpenter family planning. Instead of the familiar Christmas gifts, he and Jane gave their offspring trips which have included international stops, which they believe enhances learning and the educational experience. Their kids bought in, early on, and couldn’t wait to learn about the next destination.
While he was a great admirer of the Atlanta pitching superstars of his era—Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux, taking notes when they were pitching—he never had a secret desire to play in Atlanta. “I couldn’t have afforded all the tickets I would have needed. As it was when the Cardinals played the Braves in Atlanta, I had to request about 40 tickets from our traveling secretary, C. J. Cherre, who now lives in Athens.” Then he smiled and said, “You know I think I only gave up one run in Atlanta in my entire career. So I did okay.”
Among his Georgia memories is the influence of his Bulldog baseball coach, Steve Webber. “He was a ground breaker, maybe the first coach in the SEC to have a closer and that turned out to be me. He remains one of the best friends I have ever had.” When recalling his past, he often reflects on the view of the late Bulldog coach Erk Russell with an insightful twist. “There’s nothing like being a Bulldog on Saturday night and there’s nothing like playing baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals.”