Welcome back to Wrigley, Dexter Fowler — it’s too bad you can’t stay
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ST. LOUIS — A few days before his return to Wrigley Field for a weekend series against the Cubs, Dexter Fowler flashed his signature ear-to-ear smile in the Cardinals’ clubhouse as he ticked off the items on his Chicago to-do list.
“Win some ballgames, hopefully,” he said. “That always helps.”
The Cubs, coming off a West Coast trip from hell, will have to take his word for it.
“Probably kick it with Rizz and J-Hey. We might grab dinner or something.”
Breaking bread with old pals Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward? Now that sounds like fun.
“But you know what the biggest thing is, right?” Fowler said. “The biggest thing is getting that ring.”
Ah, yes, that World Series ring. The Cubs will present Fowler with his before the series opener Friday. It’s certain to be a special moment for all involved — not to mention a reminder of how much the Cubs miss a player who gave them one of the best seasons of his career at the top of their lineup in 2016.
Last season, at 30, Fowler delivered a team- and career-high on-base percentage of .393. And he sizzled through the first two months of the season, batting .317 with a .434 OBP as the Cubs entered June a full 20 games above .500.
Think they could use a guy like that right about now?
The 2017 Cubs, who stagger into Friday with a strange and unsettling record of 25-27, have had a stark absence of giddy-up at the top of their lineup. The only way it could be worse would be if manager Joe Maddon were writing his own name into the leadoff spot.
Did the Cubs blow it by deciding not to re-sign the well-liked center fielder, who instead joined the Cardinals for $82.5 million over five years? We probably should stick with “no” for now. So many young stars on the Cubs, all of them of higher priority.
But the fans sure miss the guy known to all as Dex.
“They showed me so much love,” he said. “It’s going to be good to see them again. I can’t wait to see everybody in the bleachers.”
And there’s no denying the Cubs miss Fowler, too.
Fowler said all the right things during his time with the Cubs, never rocking the boat despite what felt to him like an endless stream of media questions and public speculation about his contract status and future. His mantra: Take what’s given to you and enjoy the time you have.
In the end, though, the Cubs believed it was best to move on without him, and to think Fowler felt no pain or disappointment in that rejection is naïve. He’ll enjoy getting his ring, seeing former teammates, waving at the fans and all that good stuff. But the day will be a reminder for him, too — of who wanted him and who didn’t.
“It’s good to be missed,” he said, “because that means you were wanted.”
Fowler’s transition to the Cardinals hasn’t been as smooth as he or the team hoped it would be. Two months into the season, he’s “still trying to get accustomed to being over here.” His own slow start in the leadoff role — he’s batting only .230 with a .317 OBP — hasn’t helped.
Yet Fowler had six hits in three games last weekend in Colorado. In the Cards’ 2-1 victory Wednesday over the Dodgers, he smacked a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning. As he ran to the outfield for the top of the ninth, fans in the Busch Stadium bleachers greeted him like a hero.
“He’s looking much better — he’s looking more like Dex,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “I think we all know it’s going to be there. He just has to continue to do what he’s done for so long, so well.”
Fowler was in a 1-for-25 slump when he got his first hit in the aforementioned series against the Rockies. It was a line drive that looked at first like shortstop Trevor Story might make a play on — more bad luck, Fowler figured.
“I was like, ‘Aw, again?’ ” he said. “But then it went under his glove, and I was like, ‘Yes!’ I was excited about that. It might be shaking out a little bit for me. I obviously haven’t had any luck. Hopefully, it’s turning around.”
If Fowler were still with the Cubs instead, would it have been easier for him to get it going? Would he have been able to hold together an offense that has been AWOL without him?
It doesn’t really matter. He’s gone, and that’s that.
But this weekend, he’s back. It’ll be nice to reconnect.
“We experienced something that had never been done in 108 years,” he said. “You never take anything like that lightly. We had fun times over there. We were world champions.”
It sure has a nice ring to it.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.