Ron Morris

C.J. Edwards: The legend of the String Bean Slinger

Photographs by GERRY MELENDEZ

C.J. Edwards delivers a pitch for the Tennessee Smokies at Smokies Stadium, August 14, 2014.
C.J. Edwards delivers a pitch for the Tennessee Smokies at Smokies Stadium, August 14, 2014. gmelendez@thestate.com

You cannot help but notice. His Mid-Carolina High coach first saw it. So, too, did the Spartanburg Methodist assistant coach who later hooked on with the Texas Rangers and scouted him in bush league games near Newberry. All along the way, his minor-league coaches shook their heads in disbelief. Once, in major league camp, Josh Hamilton, upon seeing him shirtless, questioned if the Rangers were properly feeding their minor-leaguers.

C.J. Edwards is skinny.

Not normal skinny. Rail-thin skinny. Icabod Crane-skinny. Twiggy-like. Mick Jagger-esque. Standing on a pitcher’s mound, Edwards gives the appearance of a broomstick with a hat resting on top.

Before you think this assessment too harsh, consider that Edwards’ elongated physique has defined him and his professional baseball career. At 6-foot-3 or so and a mere 150 pounds in high school, college scouts had a difficult time considering him a serious scholarship candidate as a pitcher. Professional baseball organizations and their scouts could not project him as a major-league pitcher with a body like that. So he slid deep into the 2011 draft, the 1,464th player selected.

Yet three years later, Edwards is the talk of the Chicago Cubs organization.

----- SC’s Carl Edwards Jr. is a World Series champion -----

He was the key exchange in a trade that sent veteran pitcher Matt Garza to the Texas Rangers a year ago. He likely will land on the Cubs’ 40-man roster this fall and will camp with the major-league club next spring training. His estimated arrival in the major leagues is late next summer.

His is an incredible tale of the rare, largely undiscovered, phenom. Taught by his father from an early age to hit the pitching target, Edwards’ pitching acumen received some acclaim in high school. Mostly, though, his fame was found in the Midlands bush leagues, where pot-bellied pitchers and long-in-the-tooth first basemen are diamond stars in their back-roads communities.

Edwards was all set to take his right arm to Charleston Southern University, where he could join his best friend and high school catcher. But his life and his future were altered dramatically when that friend was killed in an auto crash in December of 2010. Instead of going to college, Edwards opted for professional baseball.

His first meeting with a professional pitching coach came in Arizona during the Instructional League of 2011. Storm Davis, a pitcher for 13 seasons in the major leagues and the roving instructor for the Texas Rangers, watched Edwards throw a few pitches.

Davis turned to Danny Clark, the Rangers pitching coordinator.

“What round was this kid picked?” Davis asked.

“Forty-eighth.”

“No, really.”

Davis, who believed he was watching an early rounder, thought Clark was joking. “Really,” Clark verified. “We found him from rural South Carolina.”

Thus was born the legend of Prosperity’s “String Bean Slinger.”

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Carl Edwards Jr. pitched for the Tennessee Smokies in 2014. Gerry Melendez gmelendez@thestate.com

Prosperity’s prodigy

The town of Prosperity mostly belies its name. There might have been a time in the early 1900s when residents were prosperous, but not in many decades. Many of the 1,000 residents travel to nearby Newberry or to Columbia for employment. That is exactly what Carl Edwards did, and he has long since worked for Shaw Industries on St. Andrews Road. To supplement the family income, his wife, Faith, works at the Miles BP convenience store in downtown Prosperity.

Carl played three seasons of baseball at Allen University before joining two of his brothers, Chuck and Thomas, on the Newberry Pirates in what is commonly called the bush leagues. Ten or so communities in the Midlands form teams of former high school and college players. They gather throughout the summer and early fall for weekend games on primarily dirt fields with ramshackle dugouts and piecemeal backstops.

The Pirates stake claim to being the New York Yankees of the Community All-Star Baseball League, having captured 11 championships over the years. One of those titles came in 2006 when the Pirates held off the Mapleton Black Sox in the championship series.

Legend has it that in one game early in that series, Mapleton knocked the Newberry pitcher around to the tune of 13 or so runs. The main culprit of the attack was the legendary “Downtown” Brown, who readily admits to being the league’s Babe Ruth, or Josh Gibson, if you will.

Brown, whose mother is likely the only one around who knows that his first name is Demond, once clubbed 43 home runs in a season. He has consistently belted long balls in each of his 17 seasons in the league. Brown is now 32.

Carl Edwards had seen enough of the beat down, and suggested to Newberry’s manager that it was time to bring his son, C.J., into the game. The youngster was 16.

A bush-leaguer seldom sees an 80-mph fastball. At the time, shortly after his freshman year at Mid-Carolina High, C.J. was throwing consistently in the mid-80s. So, naturally, he began to mow down the Mapleton batters, even “Downtown” Brown.

Chuck Edwards was the catcher that day, and with each release of a C.J. pitch, his uncle screamed about how the opposing hitter had no chance to make contact with the ball. After receiving each pitch, Uncle Chuck stepped in front of home plate, removed his catcher’s mitt, and shook his hand so everyone knew C.J.’s pitches were too hot to handle.

The Pirates came back to win that game, and the buzz around the park for the remainder of the series and for years to come was about that young kid who “could really throw.”

Of course, C.J.’s father had seen this coming for years. Beginning at age 4 or 5, C.J. – short for Carl Junior – was tutored by his father in the fine art of throwing strikes. At their Prosperity home on Langford Street, Dad found higher ground in the side yard. Using tennis balls, Dad crouched into a catcher’s position and set up a target with his glove.

“C.J., hit the target,” Dad repeated to his son day after day, year after year. “ ... Anybody can hit a straight pitch. You’ve got to hit the target, move the ball around, in and out, up and down.”

Through high school baseball and in bush league games, C.J. could hear his father from the stands with the same shouts of encouragement. “Hit the target, son, hit the target.”

For a high school pitcher, Edwards was seasoned. His fastball rested in the mid-80s range and his control was pin-point. He also had a competitive spirit Mid-Carolina coach Hu Mills had never before seen. Mills said Edwards was the baseball equivalent of a basketball gym rat, constantly requesting bullpen sessions even during the offseason.

“Standing out there in some of those bush league games, well, a lot of the psychological tactics – that’s a nice way to put it – they used against C.J., he had heard it all and seen it all,” Mills said. “He wasn’t intimidated by anything in high school.”

Edwards struck out 16 Saluda batters during one game his senior season, and when Mid-Carolina needed a win at Chesnee to remain alive in the Upper State finals, he produced a one-hit shutout. Four wins as a sophomore, 12 more as a junior and eight as a senior proved Edwards was a standout pitcher.

Still, Edwards did not look the part. Mid-Carolina could not find baseball pants that fit him properly. The bagginess of pants made Edwards look as if he were wearing a gunny sack.

Area colleges had taken a look at Edwards by his junior season, but most could not project that his fastball would pick up steam because of his slender frame. So, based solely on his friendship with Will Bedenbaugh, Edwards committed to follow his Mid-Carolina catcher to Charleston Southern.

Bedenbaugh played in 10 games for Charleston Southern as a freshman before an arm injury cut short his season. Back home in Prosperity, following the fall semester of his sophomore year, the 19-year-old Bedenbaugh was killed just after midnight on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010, when his 2009 Dodge Charger ran off Mt. Pleasant Road, hit several trees and caught fire.

Edwards had become somewhat of a third son to Charles and Sherry Bedenbaugh along with their other son, Alex. The boys often swam together in the Bedenbaugh’s backyard pool. Edwards also joined the Bedenbaugh brothers for lengthy basketball pick-up games at Zion United Methodist Church.

On a recent visit to Bedenbaugh’s gravesite across the street from that church, Edwards talked about how his friend still lives with him daily. Before every starting pitching assignment the remainder of Edwards’ high school games and into his professional career, he has paused on the back of the mound and prayed, ending with a look skyward.

“Look, bro, it’s just you and me again,” Edwards says to himself. “This is another big day in our lives. I know you’re watching down. Continue to give me strength and the confidence to throw this baseball.”

Edwards then visualizes Bedenbaugh as his catcher.

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Carl Edwards Jr. pitched for the Tennessee Smokies in 2014. Gerry Melendez gmelendez@thestate.com

Diamond in the rough

Without Bedenbaugh at Charleston Southern, Edwards decided college was not in his future. Although his family could not afford for him to join area travel teams, he did make an occasional appearance in summer showcase events. Several major-league scouts began to take serious looks at Edwards, but one in particular started to believe he had found his first diamond in the rough.

Chris Kemp played first base at Spartanburg Methodist College, then the University of Tennessee. He also played two seasons of professional baseball in the low minor leagues with the Texas Rangers organization. After giving up his playing career, Kemp returned to Spartanburg Methodist as an assistant coach.

While there, Kemp began to track Edwards as a high school pitcher and by watching him throw a few games for the Newberry Pirates in the bush leagues. “Intriguing” is the word Kemp said best described Edwards.

Then, in 2010, Kemp signed on as a scout for the Texas Rangers. Kemp believed Edwards could benefit from a weight-training program. He liked the pitcher’s competitive fire. He also believed Edwards had untapped potential because he had never played baseball year-round, choosing instead during offseasons to play basketball at Mid-Carolina High.

“If you could get him playing one sport. Katie bar the door,” said Kemp, who often compared it to having a scratch-off lottery ticket.

Edwards appeared before scouts from Texas, Boston, Toronto and San Diego at Capital City Stadium in Columbia prior to the 2011 Major League Draft. Every time Edwards pitched in front of other scouts, Kemp hoped the prospect did not have an explosive fastball. He wanted to keep his secret under wraps.

After seeing Edwards touch 91 mph with a fastball during a travel-ball game earlier in Charleston, Kemp was convinced the Rangers should draft him. At the tryout in Columbia, Kemp breathed a sigh of relief when Edwards’ fastball did not hit 90 mph.

The Major League Draft, which now is 40 rounds, went 50 rounds in 2011. When the selections reached the 30th round, Kemp told draft officials in the Rangers front office that Edwards would be a solid late-round pick if they were interested in a “projectable high school right-hander.”

The Rangers selected Edwards in the 48th round.

Because the Rangers failed to sign a couple of early-round selections, they had enough cash on hand to sign Edwards with a $50,000 bonus that far exceeded what clubs normally pay a late-round pick. Edwards used part of the bonus money to purchase a 2007 Ford Mustang, but soon traded it for a more gas-efficient 2011 Nissan Altima.

After attending the Rangers Instructional League following the 2011 season, Edwards made a splash in 14 starting assignments in 2012, first with the Rangers Rookie League club in Arizona and then with Spokane of the Short Season Northwest League. He shot up the club’s prospect list because of an easy, almost effortless motion and release, as well as natural movement on his fastball and a sharp, downward break to his curveball.

Edwards was troubled, though, by comments made by the Spokane manager, who occasionally referred to his club’s performance as being “bush league.” Edwards called a meeting with the manager, and explained that the term was offensive because Edwards had played with and against some pretty decent players in the bush leagues.

For the 2013 season, the Rangers sent Edwards to Hickory, N.C., of the low Class A South Atlantic League, where he quickly established himself as that league’s top pitcher. He compiled an 8-2 record with a 1.83 earned run average. More impressive were his 34 walks and 122 strikeouts in 93 innings.

By July of that season, the big-league Rangers were an American League pennant contender and believed they needed one more front-line starting pitcher to push them over the top. That pitcher was Matt Garza, who was an offseason away from free agency and excellent trade bait for the Chicago Cubs, who aimed to replenish their farm system with prospects.

The more the teams exchanged trade talk, the more Edwards became the sticking point. The Rangers wanted Garza, but they did not want to deal Edwards. Finally, near the major-league trade deadline, the Rangers relented and Edwards became a member of the Cubs organization.

The evening the trade was consummated, Hickory manager Corey Ragsdale scratched Edwards from his scheduled starting assignment. “Why would they trade me?” Edwards asked Ragsdale. “Have I done something wrong?”

During the second inning of the game, Ragsdale retreated to Hickory’s clubhouse to take a cell phone call, then summoned Edwards to the tunnel and told the young pitcher he had been traded. Upon hearing the news, the Hickory front office immediately staged an impromptu “C.J. Edwards Night.”

Not only because of his pitching exploits, but also because of his unassuming confidence and ability to make friends, Edwards had won over his teammates in Hickory. While they all wished Edwards well, the Hickory clubhouse was overcome with silence after that night’s game.

A couple of nights later, Edwards was pitching while wearing a Daytona jersey for the Cubs affiliate in the Class A Florida State League. His former teammates in Hickory watched the game from their iPads, cheering his every strikeout. Edwards struck out the first seven batters he faced.

Edwards also reunited in Daytona with Storm Davis, who prior to that season had left the Rangers organization and joined the Cubs. “I knew what we had because I had seen him,” said Davis, who this past season in Tennessee was again Edwards’ pitching coach.

Edwards did not earn a decision in his six Daytona starts. He posted a 1.96 ERA with seven walks and 33 strikeouts in 23 innings. After the season, Baseball America ranked him as the fifth-best prospect in the Cubs organization, No. 1 among pitchers.

During the offseason, Edwards worked out occasionally with Joshua Ortegon, a sports performance specialist at Athlete’s Arena in Irmo. Among the other major-league players training there were former USC pitcher Michael Roth of the Los Angeles Angels and Jordan Lyles, a pitcher from Hartsville with the Colorado Rockies.

On one particular day, all three pitchers threw to catcher Nick Ciuffo, a first-round pick in 2013 by the Tampa Bay Rays out of Lexington High.

“Some guys turn it up a couple of miles an hour,” Ciuffo said afterward, “but with him it goes from 90 to 94, and it’s not fun. It was moving and dipping and diving. Basically, everything you want out of a pitcher.”

A stiff shoulder limited Edwards to 10 starts this past season for the Tennessee Smokies in the Double-A Southern League. Yet Edwards was sharp enough in those appearances – a 2.44 ERA – to reaffirm the Cubs faith in his long-term success.

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Carl Edwards Jr. pitched for the Tennessee Smokies in 2014. Gerry Melendez gmelendez@thestate.com

Bright future ahead

The morning following a late-season start for Tennessee, when Edwards sat down for breakfast at Kitts Cafe on the outskirts of Knoxville, he analyzed his six innings of shutout baseball with the same precision that he located his fastball against the Huntsville Stars.

Then Edwards talked about life in professional baseball, which for most players is seen as an investment in a future they hope culminates with service in the major leagues. It certainly is not the glamour life experienced by major leaguers. With what little down time they had in Tennessee, Edwards and his roommates played endless card games of “War” and “Crazy Eights” or strolled the nearby mall.

Edwards earned a $1,200-a-month salary before taxes from the Cubs, most of which was eaten by a $263 car payment, $200 cell phone bill and $200 rent payment.

Edwards paid a lower monthly rent than his three roommates because he slept all season on an air mattress in the apartment’s living room. He also saved gas money by sending his car home to his parents and hitching rides from the apartment complex to the ballpark from teammates. Occasionally, Edwards awoke in time for breakfast, but mostly he ate sandwiches and a meal provided by the club at the ballpark.

Through his agent, Lee Long of Columbia, Edwards learned the Cubs soon will make a key decision on the pitcher’s future. Edwards just completed his third full season in the minor leagues, meaning he could become exposed to the Rule 5 Draft. The rule would allow another club to claim him for $50,000 with the stipulation that he remain on that club’s major-league roster all of next season.

To avoid subjecting Edwards to the Rule 5 Draft, the Cubs would have to place him on their 40-man roster. Because the Cubs think so highly of Edwards and do not want to risk losing him, they are likely to place him on that roster. Edwards’ annual salary will then jump from around $13,000 to $42,000.

Once Edwards reaches the major leagues, he will be paid the minimum salary of $500,000. Edwards already has plans for what he will do with that kind of money, but it is not what you would expect from most 23-year-olds.

Edwards said he dreams of the day when he can purchase tickets for Prosperity area Dixie Youth Baseball players to join him on the field before a major-league game. He also envisions funding the construction of a new Dixie Youth Baseball complex in his hometown with enough fields to accommodate every level of play.

No one who has seen Edwards pitch doubts that he will fulfill those dreams.

He still needs to better command both his 94-96 mph fastball and wicked curveball, and the Cubs are working on adding a changeup to his arsenal. Edwards also needs to add weight, mostly muscle. While with the Texas organization, the Rangers had Edwards on a 6,000-calorie a day diet and insisted that he consume peanut butter and Oreo shakes in the dugout between innings. The Cubs are less aggressive, believing Edwards will become stronger through weight training.

Edwards bragged recently that he had “gained weight,” although admitting that meant jumping from 165 pounds to 168. He bragged about the weight gain at breakfast as he nibbled at a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit, leaving the greater part of it uneaten on the plate.

He still resembles a scarecrow on the mound with stick-like legs. The cornrows he had in high school are gone, giving way to neatly cropped hair that tops his angelic-looking face. His appearance has brought natural comparisons to former major-leaguer pitchers Pedro Martinez and Oil Can Boyd, as well as the legendary Satchel Paige.

In the 2009 book “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend,” author Larry Tye could easily have been describing Edwards when he wrote: “Satchel joked that if he stood sideways you could not see him. His wiry arms and stilt-like legs were aerodynamically perfect to propel a ball from mound to plate. And he had the ideal launching pads: hands so huge they made a baseball look like a golf ball, with wrists that snapped with the fury and flash of a catapult.”

The “String Bean Slinger” is not that far away.

As if looking into the future over the recent breakfast, Edwards occasionally stared into space. He, no doubt, envisions the day he will be looking to the heavens and talking to his late high school friend while standing behind the pitcher’s mound at Wrigley Field.

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