A week before Albert Carpen drove to Texas to try out for a baseball winter league, he was a technician at the Chicago Board of Trade.
The Clark graduate was Chicago State's first All-American baseball player since the Cougars joined Division I, and led the Great West Coast Conference with a .426 batting average last season. He hoped to continue playing after college, but instead settled into a real-world job.
"I never thought I'd play baseball after college," Carpen said. "Once I got that first job, I figured my baseball days were over."
Carpen got his second chance in February, when he earned a spot in the Texas Winter League, a month-long showcase for undrafted college graduates or injury-hampered former players trying to work their ways onto pro teams. By the end of the season, he'd signed a contract with the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings, a team in the independent United League.
"It feels like I'm back in college, but I'm a pro athlete," Carpen said. "I never thought I'd be paid to play baseball."
Carpen, an outfielder, played for the McAllen Thunder and manager Greg Tagert, who also manages the RailCats. Tagert said Midwestern players like Carpen had a disadvantage against guys from the South who were able to practice outdoors on a regular basis.
Yet Carpen hit a grand slam in his first game for the Thunder. He finished the season with a .433 batting average with 15 runs, 13 RBIs and five doubles in 20 games.
"The easiest thing to like about Albert is when you look at those numbers," said Greg Tagert, the RailCats manager who managed the Thunder for during February. "With his college behind him, you wonder, is he still capable of hitting those numbers? He impressed a lot of people."
The Thunder came back from fourth place after 18 regular-season games to win the four-team league championship. Carpen had four hits, a double and a run over the two-game postseason.
After the win, teammates passed around bottles of sparkling grape juice to celebrate.
"We sprayed each other like in the World Series," Carpen said. "It was like winning a state title, and I'd never won one. We won a sectional and went to a regional, and this was great."
Half of the 80 players in the Texas Winter League earned contracts to a summer team. Carpen was one of seven taken by the WhiteWings with an additional two as undrafted roster invitees.
"Albert made me a firm believer in these kinds of leagues," Tagert said. "I was in on the final draft and even though (the RailCats) didn't select him .... I felt that he wouldn't be left without a team."
Carpen is home now, working out at Chicago State and Clark to see live pitching before he reports to training camp in Texas in mid-May.
"When someone asks me what your job is and you can say you play baseball, you have that pride that you worked so hard for this your whole life," he said. "Honestly, I haven't stopped smiling."