By Rob Rains
Their dream of seeing their oldest son, Dylan, play in person for the first time in the major leagues, on hold because of the pandemic, became a reality on Thursday for Jeff and Caryn Carlson.
The wait was worth it.
“This is beautiful; this is what counts to me, to be here with all these Cardinals fans,” Caryn Carlson said. “I can’t even describe it. I’m at such a loss for words. It’s unreal to see it. I’m just happy for Dylan. All of the hard work starts now and he knows that.”
When Carlson made his major-league debut last August in Chicago, the Carlson family gathered at the home of Caryn’s brother in southern California to watch on television. Because of the pandemic, fans were not allowed at the games last season.
With the Cardinals playing their first six games on the road this season, the Carlsons elected to wait and make the trip from their home outside Sacramento, Calif., for the home opener. Caryn’s brother and other family members, and Carlson’s agent and girlfriend, also were at Busch Stadium on Thursday.
“It’s incredible, just unreal,” Jeff Carlson said. “You never believe this is going to happen to your own son. It’s emotional to see him for the first time on a big league field. I’m just so proud of him and everything he’s done … It’s a great moment.”
The curtain call for the day was reserved for Nolan Arenado after his game-winning two-run homer in the eighth inning, in his home debut as a Cardinal, but there were plenty of moments involving Dylan that the Carlsons won’t soon forget.
His first highlight play of the day came in the first, with a running, lunging catch in front of the center field wall to take an extra-base hit away from Lorenzo Cain with the bases loaded, saving at least two and possibly three runs.
“He gave me a chance to go out and battle through it and survive that game,” starting pitcher Adam Wainwright said of Carlson’s catch. “He went a long way for that ball. That ball was up there really high coming in at a tough angle and the wind was pushing kind of weird. I’m kind of at a loss for words how big a play that was.
“As a pitcher, allowing me to get back to the dugout with a zero there instead of probably three runs … just a huge play.”
Carlson’s next moment came with the Cardinals trailing 1-0 in the seventh. With Yadier Molina on first following a two-out single, Carlson turned on a 3-2 pitch and lined a double into the right field corner. Almost any other runner would have scored, but Molina stopped at third. He did score the tying run later, however, on Tyler O’Neill’s infield single.
The emotions for the Carlsons began during the pre-game parade.
“It was incredible,” Jeff Carlson. “Then the emotion of that catch in the first inning. I think everybody in about 20 rows heard me. It was pretty cool to witness that in person and hear the roar of the crowd and see him get fired up. It was phenomenal … very emotional. Just very proud.
“If he doesn’t make that catch, what’s the outcome of that game? It changes the whole complexion of the game.”
The Carlsons had not seen their son play in person since before spring training shut down 13 months ago. Their only previous trip to Busch Stadium was when they were in town for Dylan to sign his contract after the 2016 draft. They will be here for the entire homestand, hoping not to miss any moments like happened on Wednesday night.
They were circling above Lambert Airport trying to land on their flight from California during the end of the Cardinals game in Miami.
“There was no Wifi so I couldn’t follow the game so I was stressed out about that,” Jeff Carlson said. “Then the storm hit right when we were supposed to land. We were circling for about 40 minutes. I turned my phone back on, which I wasn’t supposed to do and got some spotty texts – ‘Oh my God,’ ‘Holy cow’ ‘Great At-bat.’ I had no clue. I was like, ‘What just happened?’ Finally we heard he hit a grand slam.”
From their seats in section 211, the Carlsons saw everything happen with their own eyes on Thursday. For Jeff Carlson, it was fun to watch as a dad and not a coach – something he did for two decades, not only for his son but for countless other players at Elk Grove High School. Six of those players, including his son, have reached the majors.
“I enjoy watching him,” Jeff Carlson said. “There are times when you go and look at things. It’s kind of cool. He sends me a lot of videos of his swings and tells me what he is working on and keeps me in the loop. It’s kind of nice, makes me feel good. He still kind of wants to listen to his old man a little bit.
“He’s got great coaches and he’s in great hands. Nolan, Goldy, Yadi, Waino … he’s lucky. Every organization has special guys but I think to be around those guys, he’s very lucky. There’s a lot of wisdom there.
“It’s funny. I told somebody the other day that I learn more now than I did in the past (while coaching). I will ask him, ‘What did Goldy tell you? What did Nolan tell you? What did they say about your swing?’ He brings me back some stuff I can use with the kids I’m trying to develop. It’s like a big circle. I’m learning from him when he used to learn from me. It’s real special and very exciting.”
Arenado already has come to appreciate Carlson’s performance in their short time together as teammates.
“He’s a gamer man, I love DC … he’s done a great job,” Arenado said.
Said Jeff Carlson, “Just to see your son playing with Nolan Arenado and on the field with Wainwright and Molina is just incredible, unbelievable.”
As happy as Jeff Carlson is when a player of Arenado’s stature gives his son a compliment, there might not be a better compliment that could be said about Dylan than a story his father is proud to tell.
It was in the Sectional finals in Dylan’s senior year in high school. Elk Grove had to win two of three games to claim the championship and after a win on Friday night, they had to win one of two possible games on Saturday.
Carlson said his son was probably the team’s best pitcher, but he knew Dylan was scheduled to throw on Monday at a pre-draft workout with the Oakland A’s so he started another pitcher, and Elk Grove lost. With a one-game showdown left, he had no choice but to start his son.
“It was probably 105 degrees that day and he threw a complete game with 12 strikeouts,” Carlson said. “We got home, and I was going to have the other coaches over to celebrate. We hadn’t mowed the yard for a week and my wife was like, ‘We need to get the lawn mowed.’
“Dylan was like, ‘I’ll go do it, no problem.’ He took his jersey off but was still in the rest of his uniform and started mowing. I saw my neighbor and he was like, ‘What in the heck is this guy doing?’ He was probably thinking Dylan had a terrible game and I had him out there to punish him, mowing the lawn, after a doubleheader in 105-degree heat.
“But that’s the kind of kid he is. That’s why he’s gotten where he is. It’s pretty awesome.”
While his parents have now been able to see Carlson play in person, one of the people responsible for him signing with the Cardinals still has not been able to do that. Zach Mortimer was the team’s area scout in northern California in 2016 and now is the team’s national crosschecker. The pandemic cost him a chance to watch Carlson last summer and now he is busy preparing for this year’s draft.
Mortimer was on the road, as he almost always is this time of year, on Thursday, attending a pair of high school games – no doubt trying to find the next Dylan Carlson.
Maybe he should have followed the star of the game home to see if he was mowing the lawn.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
From left to right in top photo: Matt Hannaford (Carlson’s agent), Jeff Carlson, Caryn Carlson, Faith (Carlson’s girlfriend)