At first glance, the 2012 Memphis Redbirds season is one from which most fans will turn quickly away. With roster fluctuation in April and May — due to injuries with the parent club in St. Louis — the club got off to a dreadful start (two nine-game losing streaks) and never fully recovered. Through Sunday the team’s record stood at 47-82. Seven more losses would yield the most in the franchise’s 15-year history.
Take pause, though, and remember every minor-league team is charged primarily with developing players, not necessarily winning championships. Among the players climbing that development ladder in 2012 has been Adron Chambers, the 25-year-old centerfielder on the verge of his third big-league promotion.
A September call-up in 2011 (after big-league rosters expanded beyond the standard 25-player limit), Chambers played a small but significant role in the Cardinals’ unlikely run to the franchise’s 11th world championship. His first major-league hit was an extra-inning game-winning single at Philadelphia, then eight days later Chambers scored the game-winning run against Chicago as a pinch runner. Considering St. Louis qualified for the postseason only by winning its final regular-season game (accompanied by an Atlanta loss), every game-winning hit or run was critical. So Chambers earned his World Series ring.
“A lot of guys play their whole career, dreaming of doing what I got to do,” says Chambers. “It was a lot of fun, a lot of adrenaline. [Cardinal manager] Tony LaRussa was saying, ‘Enjoy the moments.’ No one said Adron had to do this, or had to hit this pitch. As long as we each gave it all we’ve got. Before I hit that [bases-loaded] triple [against the Mets], [Cardinal batting coach] Mark McGwire said, ‘You’re gonna do it, right here.’
“That World Series taught me how to love the game, how to cheer my teammates. It gave me a new passion for baseball. People were telling me, you may never see a moment like this again.”
As unlikely as the Cardinals’ championship run may have been, Adron Chambers wearing a big-league uniform may be just as astonishing. As a star high school quarterback in Pensacola, Florida, Chambers was recruited by Mississippi State and signed with the Bulldogs. But during his sophomore season (2006), Chambers was arrested and charged with attempted sexual battery. He was dismissed from the team and MSU. (Chambers later pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of indecent exposure.)
“My [football] coach at Mississippi State, Sylvester Croom, told me something when I left,” reflects Chambers. “He said, ‘Everybody has a book. You wrote this into your book. Now it’s up to you, what goes into the rest of it.’ I need to understand the things I can control, and be humble enough to accept the things I can’t.”
In 2007, the Cardinals took a chance and drafted Chambers in the 38th round. In 2009, he hit .283 at Class-A Palm Beach with 16 triples. A year later, he hit .282 at Double-A Springfield and .290 in 37 games for Memphis. As the Redbirds’ everyday centerfielder in 2011, Chambers hit .277 and led the club with 22 stolen bases. And this season, through Sunday, he’s hit .310. (Chambers played in 23 games for the Cardinals earlier this season, when Jon Jay was shelved by a shoulder injury.) More confident every year, Chambers now sees the so-called “little things” as critical to making him a complete player.
“Never take a day off,” he says. “Sprinting on and off the field. Warming up before the game, hitting my cutoff man. You have to be locked in. My coaches tell me to be locked in for three hours a day. Whether it’s in the outfield or on the bases, or at the plate. Try and do something to help the team win. Man on first base, nobody out . . . I’m getting that guy to second base. I can bunt; I’ve got speed.” Ironically, Cardinal coaches have leaned on Chambers to be more of a base-stealing threat. (He’s stolen only nine this season.) Once known for their “rabbits,” the Cardinals have had but one player steal as many as 20 bases over the last eight seasons.
Between Memphis and St. Louis, Chambers has played for four managers over the last two seasons: Chris Maloney and Pop Warner at AutoZone Park, LaRussa and Mike Matheny in St. Louis. And Chambers has absorbed as much of the fabled “Cardinal Way” as he can. “Tony always said to make every pitch count. Mike will have your back, through thick and thin. He understands the process, the media. But it’s about winning. And Pop brings confidence. He believes in himself. And he’ll see things I don’t and point them out. You can learn something new in this game every day.”
It would seem there are several chapters left to write in the Adron Chambers book. The next will likely come when the Cardinals make their September promotions and, ring metaphorically on hand, Chambers contributes to another pennant chase. “A lot of guys have had the opportunity, made it to the major leagues, and then let it slip out of their hands,” he says. “I come here every day with positive energy. I’ve been playing long enough now to know the kind of ballplayer I am.”