Last May, a group of New York University undergraduates took a field trip to Yankee Stadium to watch the Yankees play the Oakland Athletics.
The students were enrolled in "Baseball as a Road to God," an interdisciplinary class that juxtaposed baseball novels with books on philosophy and religion. The kind of course that brings less enlightened parents to say, "That's what we're paying for?"
What was unique about this group of highly intelligent baseball fans was that it included one student who was a former Oakland farmhand, and had actually played Major League Baseball just seven months prior.
Adrian Cardenas played at baseball's foremost cathedral, Wrigley Field, but he exiled himself as a baseball apostate.
As a 24-year-old utility player, Cardenas had 67 plate appearances in 45 games (he hit .183 with six doubles and two RBIs) with the Chicago Cubs in 2012. On the last day of the season, he was told the Cubs were going to outright him to the minors, which they did a few weeks later.
A free agent, Cardenas decided to quit baseball shortly thereafter. It was a minor transaction and one that went unnoticed by pretty much everyone until he wrote an essay for the New Yorker about it last October.
In the essay, Cardenas declares that he quit and didn't retire. In a long, fascinating phone conversation, he said he remembers the reaction of a crusty old coach in the Oakland organization who was informed that a Class A player "retired."
"He said, 'Pete Rose retired. This guy quit,'" Cardenas said. "That always stuck with me. It's too pretentious to say I retired, even though I made it to the major leagues." Quitting was a decision that had been building for years and one that still weighs on him. He said he felt an "indelible force pushing me away from baseball."
"It was a huge decision, one I wrestle with constantly," Cardenas said. "People ask me if I have any regrets. It would be incredibly insincere if I said I don't miss playing in front of 40,000 people in Wrigley Field. But it's a little more complex than that."
It wasn't long ago that Cardenas, a 2006 first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies out of Monsignor Pace High School in Miami Gardens, Fla., was a top prospect. He knows he could've carved out a respectable career in the majors.
Now, the 26-year-old Cardenas' new career goal is professional storyteller.
As players begin reporting to spring training, Cardenas is in chilly New York, taking a poetry workshop, a class on the method and theory of improvisation and an independent study course, which is basically him writing a memoir based off that New Yorker story. He's a year away from graduating.
Cardenas, who was traded to Oakland in 2008, had been going to NYU part-time since 2010 (paid for in part by the Phillies from his draft agreement) while playing professional baseball. He had nearly quit baseball after a demotion to Double-A that year, but during a week off suggested by management, he applied to school and reapplied himself to baseball.
He recalls with a laugh that he took a red-eye for his first day of class and flew back that night to Sacramento, Calif., for the Triple-A playoffs. He was finishing up an African-American literature class when he made his major league debut with the Cubs, who selected him off waivers in 2012. He tried to surreptitiously read and annotate books in the clubhouse, always mindful of how it would look to put learning before his job.
"First and foremost, making the major leagues was a goal I arbitrarily decided on, when I was 5, to do for a living," he said. "It stuck with me forever. By the time I started questioning what I wanted to do, I was in too deep. But I wanted to see it through."
"At that level, it's so demanding, you have to dedicate so much time to perfecting that craft," he said. "I wasn't one of those people to half-ass it. If I wasn't able to set all my time on perfecting my craft, I wasn't going to do it. It's not fair to me or the team. That's part of the complexity."
Now he's majoring in philosophy and creative writing at NYU.
At one point, he thought of attending film school and even got Cubs president Theo Epstein to write him a letter of recommendation.
Writing nonfiction about his life in baseball wasn't something he was interested in until he let go of his fears and started working at it. He realized he could tell some universal truths through his own experiences. It excites him.
While he wanted to move on from baseball, he found himself stimulated by that aforementioned baseball class.
"I became much more knowledgeable about baseball in class than while I played baseball," Cardenas said. "I got to appreciate baseball."
In his New Yorker essay, which he says was produced after losing a bet with an editor friend, Cardenas admitted he was weak on baseball history. He didn't even know the Dodgers used to play in Brooklyn. He says he's embarrassed by his own ignorance, and also challenged by it. Baseball was a job, and one he enjoyed most of the time. Now he wishes he studied it while he played. Maybe he would've loved it a little bit more.
"This is a generalization I'm going to make, but a lot of baseball players are relatively ignorant toward the history of the game, at least by comparison," he said. "It's interesting. I had very complex and weird sentiments about that. I didn't know if that was wrong."
Don't expect him to write a tell-all about steroids or a firsthand look at the Cubs' rebuild. He is grateful for his baseball experiences and holds no grudges.
Cardenas is interested in writing about the "absurdities and quirks" and "profound rituals of survival" in baseball.
"I think we players deal with so much failure, we have to act out in our own ways to offset and deal with that failure," he said. "Many times baseball players are melodramatic in a way that's incredibly interesting and charismatic."
As for the Cubs, Cardenas remembers his time with them fondly. He found former manager Dale Sveum helpful and approachable, and, like every other ex-Cub, said he still misses strength and conditioning coach Tim Buss.
"The Cubs are my team, I think they'll forever be my team," he said. "Funny, I never really had a baseball team. I grew up in Miami, but not until I played at Wrigley, until I made it there, and saw what baseball is like at Wrigley Field and in Chicago that I really said to myself, 'I'm a Chicago fan.'"
He remembers being nervous on his drive from Iowa and how on his first day at Wrigley, a coach had to ask Braves veterans Chipper Jones and Eric Hinske if they could move so Cardenas could take infield practice. Hinske shook Cardenas' hand and welcomed him, "to the fraternity."
Cardenas was with the Cubs from early May until the end of June, when he got sent down to make room for his good friend Anthony Rizzo. He returned at the end of July, was sent back down in mid-August and returned again in September.
He got to watch the Cubs at Citi Field last summer, but he is wary about returning to Wrigley as an ex-player.
"I'm very respectful of that space," he said. "Would I sit in the stands, watch a game, mess around and heckle Rizzo a little bit? Absolutely."
Back to that spring day at Yankee Stadium. Cardenas didn't quite know how he'd feel going to watch a game as a civilian. His classmates gave him space to soak it in, and he found himself engaging them in conversation as he straddled the line between ex-player and fan.
"It was fun," he said. "It was a great time."