ST. LOUIS -- Dexter Fowler and the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t get home until after 11 p.m. Friday night. Following about 50 days in Florida for spring training, they had played an exhibition game that evening against their Double-A club and then hopped a 35-minute flight to St. Louis.
That left Fowler one day, Saturday, to get to know the city he is committed to represent and live in for half of every year between now and 2021.
“It comes with the territory,” Fowler said later, shrugging. “I have five years here, so I’ll get a chance to walk around and meet everybody.”
What to do with one day off before a marathon season in a city you barely know? Fowler took to social media on Saturday morning to ask St. Louisans to recommend breakfast spots that don’t have a long wait. A two-hour wait when you have a hungry 3-year-old isn’t a recipe for a relaxing weekend morning.
Eventually, he scanned his suggestions and found a place with tasty eggs and pancakes and a reasonable waitlist.
“I don’t know if we found the right one, but we found a good one,” he said.
Apparently, the Fowlers’ day went well, because by the afternoon, he tweeted, “I haven’t even played one regular season game for the Cardinals and I’ve been showered with love. I feel like royalty.”
By midday Sunday, he was back at work: Busch Stadium for Opening Day against his former team, the Chicago Cubs. Fowler was the center of attention before the game, moving gracefully between interviews and smiling widely. That smile and his ability to connect with people were among the reasons the Cardinals were drawn to him. They have been touting his social graces since December. That didn’t mean Sunday was without its awkward moments.
“It’s going to be weird playing against the boys,” he said.
Fowler is in a potentially delicate situation, standing at the fulcrum of what has become a far more intense rivalry since the Cubs started their rise a couple of seasons ago. It’s almost impossible to simultaneously please Cubs and Cardinals fans nowadays. He seems intent on trying. A raucous crowd on opening night was split about 70-30 between Cardinals fans and Cubs fans.
After he signed in St. Louis, Fowler got in touch with Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who gave him the choice of a quiet, behind-the-scenes ring presentation and one in front of the fans at Wrigley Field. Fowler chose the latter. He’ll get his World Series ring when the Cardinals are on the North Side for the first of three visits on June 2.
“I wanted to experience it,” Fowler said. “It’s something that had never been done [since 1908], and I wanted to be able to be with all my former teammates to celebrate what we accomplished.”
A few minutes later, Fowler tried to appeal to his St. Louis constituency, saying the rivalry could be an intense one this season, but adding, “I always like to win, so hopefully I’ll be on top. Again.”
If Day 1 is any indication, this could be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship. The loudest ovation at Busch Stadium went to Yadier Molina, the probable Hall of Famer who signed a three-year contract extension before the game and then professed his desire to play his entire career with the birds on the bat across his chest. Hard to top that for sentiment.
The second-loudest ovation, however, went to Fowler before his first-inning at-bat. He looked touched, but he didn’t make much of a fuss, stepping in before quickly popping up against former teammate Jon Lester.
Two innings later, the Cardinals got a glimpse of the skill set they coveted when Fowler was a Cub. After a nearly minutelong ovation from the crowd, he hit a dribbler past Lester and was able to glide into first base for an infield hit. One of his closest friends in the game, Anthony Rizzo, greeted him near the bag and the two men soaked in the moment together.
“Rizzo goes, ‘That was awesome,’” Fowler said. “It was loud. I was thoroughly impressed.”
Keenly aware of Lester’s distaste for throwing to first base, he took an enormous lead, which meant he could have jogged to third when Aledmys Diaz sliced a single past Javier Baez and into center field. Fowler did score -- the only run of the game through seven innings -- when Matt Carpenter lined sharply to right fielder Ben Zobrist. Fowler tagged and slid wide of Willson Contreras' tag attempt, swiping his hand across home plate. Fowler later walked, something he does frequently.
If things go well for the Cardinals, that sacrifice fly will become part of a pattern that propels the Cardinals’ offense. One of the Cardinals’ greatest strengths is having two of the game’s elite leadoff hitters in the upper third of their lineup. The club hopes Carpenter contributes as much in the No. 3 hole as he did leading off for them over the past few seasons. It might be something of an adjustment, as he’ll have more opportunities to drive in runs than score them, particularly if Fowler plays well.
For now, the Cardinals are letting Fowler settle in and hoping they can ride the momentum of an exciting 4-3 win on opening night to a strong start to their season.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon made a habit of saying, “You go, we go,” to his leadoff hitter before Fowler’s at-bats. Fowler was asked if Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had borrowed the phrase.
“I don’t think he’ll say that, but in my head, I feel like that’s the motto,” Fowler said. “You go, we go.”