JUPITER, Fla. — It is 8:02 in the morning, and the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse is quiet.
The door swings open. It’s Dexter Fowler, the Cardinals’ new center fielder.
He walks into the room, yells out to no one in particular, stops off at his locker, walks to the clubhouse stereo, turns it on, and cranks it up.
He starts with “Jumpman,’’ switches to “Zoom’’ to “Boo Thang,’’ to “Beautiful Now,’’ playing every artist from Drake to 2 Chainz to Rihanna to Kid Cudi.
The place suddenly is jumping. Guys are animatedly talking. A spirited ping-pong game gets started. A few guys show off dance moves. The room is filled with laughter.
In what should be just another mundane morning in spring training, Fowler has turned silence into camaraderie, and all the intangible benefits that may come with it.
The Cardinals not only believe Fowler can be the difference that permits them to make a return to October baseball, but perhaps just as important, help transform a city.
This is a community still recovering from the unrest 2 ½ years ago in Ferguson, Mo. when a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed an unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown.
Fowler, one of just 69 African-American players on last year’s opening-day rosters, understandably had concerns about the city’s racial tension. He wasn’t going to commit the next five years of his life to live in an uncomfortable place for his family.
The Cardinals, wanting to alleviate as much anxiety as possible, summoned Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith for assistance. He’s the last African-American player who starred for the Cardinals. He retired 20 years ago, but has lived in St. Louis since 1982. Smith called Fowler and shared his sentiments about playing and living in St. Louis, but not before Fowler had plenty of questions on his own.
Fowler, who rejected a Harvard basketball scholarship to play baseball, wanted to know just what happened in Ferguson. He wanted to know what it was like to play in St. Louis as an African-American. How it would be for his wife, Darya, who was born in Iran, and their 3-year-old daughter, Naya.
“I just wanted some background information before I went anywhere,’’ Fowler said, “and Ozzie was real with me. I asked. He answered. And I definitely appreciated that.’’
Said Smith: “I explained to him that I don’t think there’s any finer baseball town than in St. Louis. It’s going to be a very special opportunity. You play the game the right way, play it hard, keep your nose clean, the fans will love you.’’
Still, Fowler wanted to know more, much more.
“His concern with Ferguson was very real,’’ Smith told USA TODAY Sports. “I told him that Ferguson was a microcosm of what was going on around the country. It didn’t just happen overnight. It had been building. St. Louis was just the place that jumped out. Those are the problems that all big cities have, and as a city, we were dealing with it, just like everyone else.’’
Fowler, who was also being heavily courted by the Toronto Blue Jays, Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Angels, got the answers he needed. A week later he was in St. Louis having dinner with Cardinals GM John Mozeliak and scouting director Randy Flores at the Ritz-Carlton, finalizing his five-year, $82.5 million deal.
“I left that dinner thinking we were buddies for 15 years,’’ Mozeliak said. “I left thinking, 'This guy is an ideal fit. What an unbelievable personality.’ He couldn’t have been more enlightening. He’s charming. He’s welcoming. He’s smart.
“We touched on a lot of topics, and it was not just baseball, far from it.’’
It included the delicate subject of race relations, and the importance of Fowler’s role in the community as a black baseball star in a city with a population that’s 49.2% African-American.
“I don’t want you to think that was the reason we signed Dexter,’’ Mozeliak said, “but I certainly wanted him to understand the importance of what he could mean to us. We talked about what happened in Ferguson, and what the perception is of our city. It’s certainly something he had to think about.
“I don’t know if every person would want that type of responsibility, but his social awareness and social engagement will allow him to handle this as well as anyone. Having someone like Fowler who’s comfortable, not afraid to speak out, not afraid to answer a question, is going to be healthy.
“No one changes the world, but having somebody that becomes that face of the Cardinals who’s different (than the recent past), is OK.’’
Fowler, 30, certainly isn’t seeking to become a civics leader in St. Louis, but if he can help mend racial relations, or be a role model, he’s all in. This is a team that hasn’t had an everyday African-American player in their starting lineup longer than one season since Reggie Sanders in 2004-2005. The last African-Americans to represent the Cardinals in the All-Star Game were Ray Lankford and Royce Clayton in 1997. Long gone are the days of Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee and Smith.
“Being African-American in baseball is getting to be rare,’’ Fowler says, “so to be able to come here and shine would be awesome for everybody. Not just the African-American community, but the community in St. Louis in general. You try to bridge a gap.
“I’m good with everybody. It’s not about a black or white thing for me. It’s being able to mesh, getting along with everybody, and trying to bring everybody together.’’
Fowler discovered in a hurry that it won’t be a seamless process.
He was asked the first week of camp about President Trump’s executive order that limited travel to seven Muslim-majority countries, before it was blocked by the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He told ESPN, “It’s huge, especially any time you’re not able to see family, it’s unfortunate.’’
That was the extent of it, but Fowler barely had uttered the words before he was attacked by several hundred people on Facebook and Twitter, saying he should stick to baseball, and keep his social commentary to himself.
He responded with a Tweet: “For the record, I know this is going to sound absolutely crazy, but athletes are humans, and not properties of the team they work for.’’
For the record. I know this is going to sound absolutely crazy, but athletes are humans, and not properties of the team they work for.— Dexter Fowler (@DexterFowler) February 19, 2017
“It’s such an explosive subject,’’ Smith said. “People are so super-sensitive to that stuff. It’s bad when you say it affects you, and you have people get all over you. It speaks to the sensitivity of the country, and all over the world.’’
Said David Ross, Fowler’s close friend and former Chicago Cubs teammate: “We felt so bad for him, it was like, 'Man, how can things go sideways like that? You’ve got to be kidding?’ This is one of the best human beings I know. He was just shooting from his heart. He didn’t say anything political at all.
“The thing about Dex is that he’s genuine. What you see is what you get. That’s not fake. The Cardinals are going to love him. He can talk about a lot of different topics, can relate to the young or the old, to different races and personalities. He’s a true leader.’’
The Cubs, manager Joe Maddon succinctly says, don’t win the 2016 World Series without him. The Cubs care so deeply about him that they are planning a public ring ceremony at Wrigley Field, likely on June 3, when the Cardinals come to town. Fowler can’t wait to try on the ring that includes 108 diamonds — one for every year since their last World Series title — and will be the second-biggest in sports history behind that of only the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers’ 6.5 carat rings that weigh 165 grams.
The Cardinals, who have four National League pennants and two World Series titles since 2004, but missed the postseason for the first time in six years last season, believe that Fowler can be just as instrumental in their resurgence. They watched the switch-hitting Fowler bat .390 with seven homers and a .483 on-base percentage when leading off a game last year. They saw the Cubs go 54-15 in games he reached base at least twice. And they were acutely aware the Cubs went 11-17 when he went on the DL in mid-summer.
“He’s made a difference in here already, just from the standpoint of being a breath of fresh air,’’ says Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong, who requested that his locker be next to Fowler’s in spring training. “He gives you that feeling like we’re going to play as hard as we can in here, and we’re going to have fun. You watch how he plays, and this guy is having fun the whole time, but he knows how to be serious.
“We’ve always been an old-school team, but I think adding Dexter, we’re trying to change the outlook on how the Cardinals play the game. Times are changing. You can have fun but still take care of business at the same time.’’
The music is hard to miss — now blasting during their morning stretching and back-field batting practices. There’s more laughter. The team even went on a field trip to Legends of Xscape, where players tried to figure out clues to get out of an escape room.
Xscaped with my bros! pic.twitter.com/uWI1eqPAsZ— Dexter Fowler (@DexterFowler) February 23, 2017
“He’s just what we needed,’’ Cardinals veteran starter Adam Wainwright says. “He walked in here the first day, and it seemed like he’s been here 10 years already. Everybody accepted him, and he accepted everybody else.
“We learned a lot about ourselves last year, on a lot of different things. I think we all realized that things needed to be better from everybody’s standpoint. We needed to do things differently. Now we are.’’
Fowler’s impact, of course, will be measured over time. He believes he’s only getting better. He talks almost every day with his mentor, Barry Bonds, who spent 10 days at Fowler’s home this winter, working together at the batting cage.
“It’s been awesome being here, a blessing really,’’ says Fowler. “It’s fun to build new relationships, get to talk to a new fan base, and feel everybody out. I just wanted to come in and be myself, and see how it goes. It’s been great.
“I’m really going to like this.’’