JUPITER, Fla. — On his first active day as a Cardinal, Dexter Fowler was the last player to leave the clubhouse and hit the practice field. It probably didn’t have anything to do with the strangeness of wearing the color red, but you never know.
Fowler finally emerged, then it hit him: He didn’t know how to get from here to there.
He took a few steps in the wrong direction.
“Stretching?” he asked a team employee, who pointed him the opposite way.
And that’s how Fowler’s post-Cubs career started: waywardly. Ah, well. It isn’t too late for him to turn it around.
“Good, productive, that’s it,” Fowler said a couple of hours later after the first full-team workout Friday. “We’re moving in the right direction.”
Well, we’ll have to see about that. St. Louis finished 17½ games behind the first-place Cubs in the National League Central and missed the playoffs last season. Coming after three consecutive division titles and five consecutive trips to the postseason, it certainly looked and smelled like regression.
Yet if there was a theme on Day 1, it was that the Cardinals believe they’ve got the goods to close that gap and play deep into October. They might not have prized young pitcher Alex Reyes, suddenly lost to Tommy John surgery, but they do have the feel-good center fielder with the 100-megawatt smile and the ultra-cool factor of having homered to lead off Game 7 of the World Series.
“He’s such a perfect signing for us,” team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said.
Fowler was a player the Cardinals felt they had to have. With him as their center fielder, promising 25-year-old Randal Grichuk can focus on left field, a better spot for him than center was. Fowler certainly represents an improvement to the team’s offense, especially given his excellent numbers at Busch Stadium. But that’s not all.
The Cardinals are — how to put this nicely? — duller than dirt. Or they were, anyway, until Fowler arrived and immediately injected some much-needed fun into his new environment. The Cardinals, whose clubhouse chemistry could’ve been better last season, were counting on this, too.
Fowler brought music to the team stretching session. Rap music. The plan for Saturday was country. Then oldies on Sunday. Every day, someone else in charge of the tuneage.
Somehow, no one at Cardinals camp had ever thought of something like this.
“No, we never had music before,” Grichuk said. “But it was great. Guys dread stretching because it takes 30 minutes and you’ve got to run. I didn’t mind it. I heard other guys talking about it, and they didn’t mind it.
“I like Dexter. So far, so good. He keeps things light, stirs the pot, creates a fun environment.”
Fowler’s “open personality,” as manager Mike Matheny put it, has been an instant hit.
“Guys are flocking to him, asking questions — they’re drawn to him,” Matheny said. “It’s a great thing to have. We know the type of player he is, the type of teammate he is.
“You don’t see many people walk in and immediately have that kind of impact.”
That’s the kind of credibility so many of the Cubs have after positive-vibing their way to the mountaintop. Give the Cardinals credit for being open to a change of mindset.
Behind closed doors before the workout, players could be heard clapping and shouting. They were getting fired up for the season — and for their hotshot rivals.
“That’s the first time I’ve heard that name today,” Matheny said, tongue-in-cheek, when asked how many times the word “Cubs” had come up in his preseason speech to his players.
The Cardinals are coming for all the Cubs’ banners.
“We’re certainly not backing off,” DeWitt said. “We’re not acknowledging that we don’t have a team that can go deep because we believe that we do.”
Much of it really does seem to stem from the presence of Fowler, who has said all the right things since joining the club.
“It’s going to be fun this year to battle [the Cubs] 19 times,” Fowler said. “Hopefully, we’ll come out on top.”
For the most part, Fowler has kept the conversation on his new team. That was to be expected. But there are some guys in Mesa, Arizona, he might miss just a bit.
“We won a championship together,” he said. “Those will always be my brothers. We’re playing against each other now, but we did something that hadn’t been done in 108 years.”
Does he wish things had worked out differently in the end — that the Cubs had wanted to bring him back? That’s a tough question, and probably not a fair one.
“I believe things happen for a reason,” he said. “You’ve just got to roll with the punches. That’s what I was dealt, and I don’t think I could’ve been dealt a better hand.”
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.