JUPITER, Fla. — Each morning, Kolten Wong slings his bat bag over his shoulder, grabs his glove and then bends over for one last piece of essential equipment before he heads to the field for morning stretch at St. Louis Cardinals camp.
It’s a high-powered portable speaker for players to plug their smart phones into. The team rotates who gets to pick the music, and it’s all the brainchild of the team’s newest centerpiece player, Dexter Fowler.
One day last week, players were swaying to Kanye West’s “All Falls Down,” between taking hacks in the cage. Fowler, a switch-hitter batting right-handed, launched a couple of towering shots to left-center field, prompting third baseman Matt Carpenter to jokingly yell, “Stop it!” On Monday, Bob Marley was singing melodically through the speaker.
“You can tell it’s my day to pick,” Wong said.
Playing music during batting practice is hardly revolutionary stuff. But it has generated headlines in Cardinals camp, where spring trainings have been run with an all-business precision. Fowler’s sunny, shrug-it-off view of baseball, if not life, is among the reasons the team was so zeroed in on him as the perfect solution to their needs all winter. Not only is he a discerning leadoff hitter, a strong base runner and a solid center fielder, but he has a laid-back demeanor. That’s not the first adjective most associated with the Cardinals.
“He brings immediate energy to any room or any table and it’s infectious,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said of Fowler.
Fowler isn’t downplaying his ability to loosen things up in his new clubhouse. In fact, he wants to make something perfectly clear: It really was as good of a time as it looked while the Chicago Cubs were snapping a 108-year title drought on the North Side last season.
“We had fun,” said Fowler, who played two seasons with the Cubs. “All the time. I’m not going to say we never were mad, but even when we lost, it was like, ‘We lost.’ Ten minutes later, put on some music, chill, do what you need to do. It’s over,” he said. “I think the best baseball players have the shortest memories.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has talked about making camp more fun for a couple of years now, but perhaps it took a personnel tweak or two.
“Already, it seems more fun and I think we’ll play looser,” outfielder Stephen Piscotty said. “I think that’s a good thing, instead of playing tight and rigid.”
That last phrase begs another question, suggesting the Cardinals might not have had ideal clubhouse chemistry in 2016.
“I don’t think it was a problem last year, but I think this year feels different early,” Piscotty said. “We’ll see how it plays out, but I think we’re all optimistic about the different feel. When you play this game every single day, you’ve got to have fun. If you’re not having fun, it’s just an absolute grind. You feel like for hours and hours you’re just dragging through drills and what not, but I don’t get the sense that’s going to happen this spring.”
Adding one man, you could argue, isn’t likely to change the atmosphere of a room in which 25 players, a handful of a coaches and support staff work every day for long hours. But a couple of personnel changes could go further than you might think. Not only did the Cardinals acquire Fowler, but they let go of one of their longtime team leaders, Matt Holliday, whose quiet, grind-it-out mentality helped define a very good club for many years.
Holliday’s intimidating presence and old-school perspective made it sometimes uncomfortable for younger players, team sources indicated. The disconnect could simply have been generational, as not that long ago, young major league players were expected to remain quiet in the company of their veteran teammates. Holliday joined a clubhouse that had a reputation for old-school toughness under manager Tony La Russa and hard-nosed players like Chris Carpenter and Skip Schumaker.
The Cardinals are quick to praise Holliday when the conversation even drifts in that direction.
“I’ll say again, Matt was great,” Matheny said. “There are so many of these guys who are very grateful for the professionalism and everything that he brought to this club. I think our young players gravitate towards certainly people and their leadership style and they connect with one or they don’t with one or the other. Matt’s somebody we were fortunate to have here and made a positive impact on our club.”
Nobody describes last season’s Cardinals clubhouse as a cesspool of dysfunction, but clearly Mozeliak was alerted to enough divisions that he sought to change the dynamic over the winter. After the team embarked on a team-building exercise at a West Palm Beach, Florida, escape room last week — the brainchild of veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright — the leader of the pitching staff elaborated on some of the divisiveness that plagued the team en route to an uncharacteristically mediocre 86-win season.
“You get better in the clubhouse, you usually get better on the field, so we’re trying to do that this year,” Wainwright said. “Last year, we just weren’t on the same page. I think everyone would say that. We’re just doing so much a better job to just check in on everybody this year.”
The team got nothing but positive comments when it canvassed people around baseball about Fowler’s personality, and the impressions were cemented at a dinner the night before the team introduced him at a Busch Stadium news conference in December.
“Last year’s season didn’t go as planned,” Mozeliak said. “When teams are not performing to expectations, sometimes you look at other things to point to. I do feel like last year you had this younger group coming up and you had a very, very veteran pulse of the team in Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday. I never felt relations were stormy or cloudy, but you have to ask that group. To my point, where somebody like a Dexter Fowler is so beneficial is his comfort zone is everybody, from A to Z.”
The Fowler love fest already has reached the very top of the organization.
“He was just such a perfect signing for us. I really believe that,” team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said. “Not only did he fit the need we had on the field, but he’s such an enthusiastic, admired, popular, personable guy — all those adjectives. It’s hard to remember someone who’s come from another team who instantaneously has buy-in from everybody.”
People who visit Cardinals camp don’t have to take anyone’s word that players are buying into Fowler’s influence. They just have to trust their ears.