03/18/12 6:05 PM ET
Cardenas working on two dreams at once
Infielder trying to win Major League job, finish college
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
The infielder has a 10-page paper due Monday for his African-American literature class at New York University. The topic is the child soldiers of Sierra Leone, which is not normal discussion in a Major League clubhouse.
Cardenas, 24, is not just trying to win a job on the Cubs' roster this spring; He's also a student working on his degree.
"I'm a better baseball player because of it," he said Sunday.
At the age of 18, Cardenas was focused on playing baseball. He's now with his third team and has yet to get a taste of the big leagues. In 2010, he applied to NYU and has about 30 credits so far. He lives in New York in the offseason to continue his studies.
You may one day read about his family's journey to the U.S. Cardenas is Cuban, and his parents knew each other before they departed their homeland. His father arrived in the U.S. at the age of 21. His mother somehow got to Spain and lived there two years before the two were reunited in Florida.
Today, his father is a physical therapist and his mother is a nurse, and both are U.S. citizens.
And Cardenas, who is working on a creative writing major and a philosophy minor, may write their life story in a novel.
He is unique. No survey was taken, but he's most likely the only Cubs player, if not the only player in Spring Training to go on an Albert Camus binge and read three of the French author's books in a two-week period. He used to be afraid to read a book in the clubhouse because of potential teasing by the other players.
"There's a stereotype that baseball players are baseball players and nothing beyond that," said Cardenas, who obviously does not fit any stereotype, not with four textbooks in his backpack, including "Playing in the Light," a novel about 1990s Cape Town and a post-apartheid society.
"The whole point of life for me is to challenge myself intellectually," Cardenas said.
He's also pursuing a baseball career. Last season, he batted .314 at Triple-A Sacramento, and the Athletics then designated him for assignment. The Cubs claimed him off waivers.
"To be honest, that's something I've had to deal with, getting drafted at a young age," Cardenas said about the transaction. "You become a little disenchanted with the game because you realize it is a business and it loses its simplicity and just going out there and having fun.
"You have to find it within yourself to maintain the ideas you had going into this when you played at a young age," he said.
Cardenas was drafted by the Phillies in 2006 out of Monsignor Pace [Fla.] High School. He was dealt to the A's in 2008 as one of three players for Joe Blanton. He's spent six years in the Minor Leagues, and that's enough.
"You want to be in the big leagues, obviously, when you have a good year in Triple-A and you're on the 40-man," Cardenas said of the 2011 season. "You're thinking, 'Man, I should be rewarded, I've put in the time, I've put in the work.' You understand that sometimes it just doesn't work out that way for whatever reason.
"It could turn out to be a blessing in disguise with the organization here. It's unbelievable to play for a team like the Chicago Cubs. Even if you don't know baseball, you know three teams -- the Red Sox, the Yankees and the Chicago Cubs. To be a part of that organization is unbelievable."
Cardenas said he knows Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations, and Jason McLeod, now the Cubs' senior vice president of scouting and player development, from their days with the Red Sox. Both scouted Cardenas before the '06 Draft. The infielder is very happy to be on the team.
"Plus, you're in situation to be a part of history," he said. "If the Cubs were to win a World Series, you can't ask for too much more."
A left-handed hitter, he's battling Blake DeWitt, another left-handed bat, for a spot. Cardenas has primarily played second base in the Minor Leagues but grew up as a shortstop, he said.
"I'm in a fun position in camp because for the first time, I feel I have a very good shot at making this team," Cardenas said. "You learn to play without any inhibitions. I'm taking that to my at-bats and defensively as well. I'm just leaving it all out there and at the end of the day, you're either going to get a shot or not get a shot."
Cardenas impressed the Cubs with a running catch in foul territory of a popup during a game. Manager Dale Sveum also has complimented the infielder on his ability to "center the ball."
"I pride myself a lot on hitting and a lot on defense," Cardenas said. "I pride myself to get better in every aspect, both on and off the field. I think many people don't take into consideration, especially people who don't know baseball, how much [defense] plays into winning."
Now, he's just waiting for at-bats. When the Cubs claimed Cardenas, they designated DeWitt to make room on the 40-man roster.
"We both have an understanding that it's not our decision," Cardenas said. "At the end of the day, we can trust we're going to give it all and have that healthy competition and at the end of the day, whatever happens, happens. That's true with every player here who doesn't have a solidified spot. If you're not Kerry Wood or [Ryan] Dempster, that's the position you're in, and many times that's the position you're in over the course of your career and you have to be comfortable with that."
So, will Cardenas ever graduate?
"Probably never," he said, laughing. "I never got in it for the degree."
Will he get to the big leagues before he writes his novel?
"Let's hope so," he said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.