Cardinals’ rookies get a welcomed introduction to first-class big-league travel

The detached reality of Major League Baseball can make it challenging to remember that some of the trappings of life in the big leagues are staggering the first time they’re experienced by people who become used to them over time.

Five-star hotels and private flights are perks of the job, but for a young player out on the road for the first time, it’s difficult not to be every bit as wide-eyed as a fan might be in their place.

“I was like, ‘where am I gonna sit,’ I think was my first thought,” St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Brandon Crawford said. “I felt very underdressed because I didn’t know that we wore suits on the road at the time.”

Crawford, who made his debut in 2011, was quickly set straight and guided to his seat by teammate Emmanuel Burriss. For catcher Pedro Pagés, making his first big league road trip this weekend in New York, it was Willson Contreras, Iván Herrera and Masyn Winn. Manager Oli Marmol, promoted temporarily in September 2016, was set straight by former coach Mike Aldrete.

Reliever Ryan Fernandez, in his rookie season but a veritable veteran compared to Pagés, lucked out – he was the last guy on the plane, and there was only one row left in which he could sit.

Yes, a whole row. “I got three seats to myself,” a beaming Fernandez said. “It was really cool.”

The minimum travel standards for major league players are written into the league’s collective bargaining agreement, so players and coaches have an academic understanding of what awaits them before they take off on the first team flight. There is undoubtedly a lot of money coursing through baseball, and while it’s reflected in the travel accommodations, they also represent an opportunity for teams to encourage rest and nutrition, as well as guaranteeing that organizations aren’t beholden to the whims of commercial travel.

Most of the time, that is.

For players who get called up to the majors while the team is already on the road, there’s usually a quick commercial trip to get caught up.

Matthew Liberatore was tabbed for his first big league start in Pittsburgh in 2022 while the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds were in Gwinnett, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. He knew about the assignment a full four days before it was announced to the public, and he was instructed to play dumb with teammates who had questions about why his schedule had suddenly shifted.

At the same time, his teammate and childhood friend Nolan Gorman got his first call, and when Gorman was pulled off the field during batting practice by a trainer, the whole team broke into a celebration for his achievement. Liberatore, true to his word, stayed quiet until that night when manager Ben Johnson made the same announcement on his behalf.

Liberatore, though, was faced with a dilemma. Gorman was needed in the next day’s lineup, a Friday, but he wouldn’t pitch until the second game of the series on Saturday. Gorman, then, got travel priority, and Liberatore was given the choice of a first class ticket that would have him in the air during Gorman’s debut or an economy ticket on the same flight with Gorman.

Not wanting to miss his friend’s first moments in the majors, Liberatore opted to fold his 6-feet, 4-inch frame into a middle seat in the very last row of a flight from Atlanta to Pittsburgh, a far cry from the luxury service to which most players are accustomed.

“I did a lot – as did everyone else here – we all did a lot of grinding to get to this point,” Fernandez said. “You get here, and it’s so fulfilling. It just makes you happy.”

Pagés arrived for his first stint in the majors earlier this season in an Uber ordered by the team which rushed him from Indianapolis to St. Louis. While he was on the chartered flight which took the club from Florida to Arizona for two games against the Cubs to wrap spring training, this was his first regular season road trip. Thursday’s off day afforded a chance for some shopping in Manhattan, a dinner with teammates, and a chance to unwind in one of New York’s most luxurious hotels.

That’s a far cry from so many long bus rides and discount hotels in far-flung locales throughout the minor league system.

“It’s a good feeling, for sure,” he said, grinning. “It’s different. I wasn’t expecting that at all.”

Even by big league standards, and even in chilly April weather, Pagés was fortunate in drawing New York for his first trip. Marmol joined the Cardinals in Chicago in 2016, another popular destination.

Crawford, however, took his first trip to Milwaukee, but had no complaints about the destination.

“I hit a grand slam,” he cracked. “It turned out to be pretty good.”

And perhaps most importantly, by the end of that trip, he acquired a suit. These days he sits in the back of the plane, a privilege earned by a veteran. That prime real estate is nearly out of sight of the Fernandez row at the far front.

“Maybe in a couple years,” Fernandez said.