JUPITER, Fla. — The dusty glow projecting from behind the practice fields, at his back as he lugged a backpack and grocery bag from the parking lot early Thursday morning, his shadow stretching forever on the concrete walk, is a promise or a trick. That new sun, the new day, would be his to decipher.
My 40-minute drive had begun in darkness and become purple-gray-blue, and it had gotten me to thinking about Dexter Fowler, which maybe was weird.
“A little weird,” he confirmed.
Well, hit a buck-eighty over 90 games, get shoved from center field to right, fall out of the leadoff spot, find yourself in a controversy over your relationship with the manager, grow dispirited, break your foot and sit out the final two months and there is nothing quite like another shot at the day, a day, any day. Sometimes you find misfortune, or despair, just as you might find opportunity, and sometimes it finds you. And sometimes it is both.
“That’s life, right?” he said, and that’s what comes next.
Fowler is healthy again after starting the offseason in a walking boot. Entering the third year of a five-year contract with the St. Louis Cardinals that still owes him $49.5 million, he will be 33 in a week. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this winter he’d suffered from bouts of depression in his second year with the club, and in those moments had become angry with himself for being unable to shake it, and that is where the season went, into those lonely places that hide from the new sun.
Fowler smiled Thursday morning. He welcomed a short conversation about what it all means and where it goes from here. He said his parents and wife and children and brother are proud of him. He said his game is coming, slowly, and that he reminds himself that it was eight months between at-bats, so to forgive the late or early or unbalanced swings. He said it was good to be among the fellas again, that he appreciates the mild chaos and the routine and the love again. He said he wants to win, just win, because, “You know, winning cures everything. Just have fun. Be around the guys. When you’re around good guys and good atmosphere I think everything else takes care of yourself.”
He is easy to like. He is a more than competent ballplayer, or was until whatever last season was, and certainly can be again. And he is important to what becomes of the Cardinals, who have a fight ahead in the NL Central. Now it’s a matter of stacking the days, good ones, until they, too, are routine again.
“I figured, man, God has a plan for me,” he said. “Right, wrong or indifferent, you learn from it and you keep going.”
This is him, keeping going. Different, maybe, from starting over.
John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations for the Cardinals, stood Thursday morning behind a chain link fence, where he watched an intrasquad game consisting of tomorrow’s Cardinals, young men very serious and mostly anonymous. While scanning the sky for a foul ball, he noted that Fowler had healed from his foot injury, that Mike Shildt would be a different kind of manager than Mike Matheny was, and that Fowler had plenty of game left in him.
“So,” he said, “if you’re driving to the ballpark today and you’re watching that sun come up, I think that happened for him months ago. And I think he’s approached this camp and spring as something that’s been a bit of a renewal. His attitude and approach have been great. And I think the Dex that we expect to see from a production standpoint will be there. His personality has always been something of a strength for him and I think you’re going to continue to see that be an asset for him as he moves forward.”
It seems clear he appreciates Fowler, likes him, even admires him. I asked if he thought Fowler was a sensitive person.
“Thoughtful,” Mozeliak said. “I just think he’s very aware.”
“Some people,” he continued, “what’s happening around them, they’re just like, ‘Meh.’ Other people have like a real court awareness, where they see things going on that other people just ignore. Sometimes when you have that skill, at times you could be putting too much burden on yourself, because you’re seeing what you see. There’s other people who are just ignoring it and it’s not even noise to them. … I’ve had enough conversations with Dex. He pays attention.”
There is, of course, no perfect leader, no perfect manager. They all get fired eventually. There are, however, perfect leaders for some. Mike Shildt steers with a folksiness, an honesty, that is subtle and disarming. When a reporter asked Thursday who would manage the other half of an upcoming split-squad game, Shildt asked the reporter which game he’d be attending.
“I think I’ll be staying here,” the reporter said.
“Well,” Shildt said, “I guess you’re out.”
Perhaps it would be unfair to say Fowler – or any of the Cardinals, for that matter – would require a new boss, or that a different boss would have had any bearing on Fowler’s lost season. It is baseball, out there, no matter who is on the top step. The club did seem to respond well to Shildt, however, and Fowler might have as well, had his season not ended in early August.
“He’s in a really good place,” Shildt said of Fowler. “If you just take a step back – and maybe you will or won’t, but – just watch Dexter go through his daily, come into the clubhouse, which, I get to see that, because we get here early. Not to say you don’t. But, we get to see it, is my point. And he’s happy and he’s engaged and he’s participatory in everything we’re doing. You look at yesterday, a nuanced play for me, that we pick up and realize, we had the chopper that was hit with two outs. His secondary [lead] was great. He was getting around third. And if there had been a replay type situation or a safe kind of banger at first base he scores easily. So that speaks to his engagement. If you watch on a single to left how he’s backing up throws, that speaks to his engagement. So that tells me where his heart and his mind and his soul is.”
What a buck-eighty reminds you is it’s a hard game played by big, strong, fragile people. Feet break. Psyches bend. Center-cut fastballs get fouled back. Careers hang in the middle of it. A bad season ends. With any luck, a new one begins, on one of those new days we’ve been talking about.
“It allows you to be you,” Dexter Fowler said. “It allows me to be me. Sometimes you feel like when you’re in a situation where you feel handcuffed and you can’t escape. But, you go through things. You learn from them. You move on.”
I asked him if, during the worst of it, he missed that guy.
“What guy?” he said.
The joyful guy, I said. The one who can’t get enough of this. You.
“I know I still got it. I still got it,” he said. “But at the end of the day you realize who you are. And whose you are. So, at the end of the day, you realize it’s just a blip in the radar. It looks like it’s a huge cloud. But you look back, it’s like, oh that was a blip.”
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