JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- Sometime around 9:30 Thursday morning, Cardinals players found themselves standing in a small, strange room they had never seen before. They received a set of instructions, the door closed and they were trapped.
They had one hour to escape.
“It was intense,” Marco Gonzales said. “We had one group of five guys and we were initially in two separate rooms. Then we converged in one bigger room and had to get out of that one.”
They were at Legend of Xscape in West Palm Beach, split up into groups and charged with solving a series of puzzles to get out of their respective confines.
The trip was designed as a team-building exercise, a metaphor for a baseball season in which a collective of individuals must work together toward a single goal; something St. Louis struggled with last season.
“Last year we just weren’t all on the same page,” Adam Wainwright said. “I think everyone would say that now and I think we’re just doing such a better job to check in on everybody to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
It was Wainwright who proposed the idea, having become enthralled with escape rooms when he, Andrew McCutchen, Blaine Boyer and Jason Standridge did one together in Orlando in the offseason.
“When I left I wanted to do about three or four more rooms,” he said.
So on February 14, he proposed the idea to manager Mike Matheny, who jumped at the chance to do something unusual.
“It was a great idea. We’ve thought in the past of how to do something as a group, how to get people together, but typically there’s a physical component to it,” he said. “This is more mind power and teamwork.”
Their first challenge was figuring out where they were going. The first group, about 30 or so, boarded the bus at 8:30 a.m. in full spring training uniforms. Only Wainwright knew the destination.
As they drove, the questions came in. The veteran ace played coy, but when one teammate guessed they were going to a nearby golf tournament, he let them believe they were right. Not everyone was convinced.
“I was getting anxious on the ride because I was like, ‘What are we doing? Where could we possibly be going that we’re not doing something physical and we’re going down to West Palm?” Gonzales said. “I had no idea. We were heading south and guys were throwing out skydiving.”
They walked off the bus and were split into small groups, between three and five guys, based on Matheny’s choices. The idea was to mix up personnel and force those who don’t know each other to work together in close quarters. Veterans were paired with rookies and non-roster invitees to camp, Spanish speakers and English speakers were matched up and players who rarely socialized together were forced to become fast friends.
“I went through the archives of [which players] I never saw talk to [other players], and they typically would end up groupmates,” Matheny said. “Forcing them to spend time with people they haven’t in the past.”
Despite everyone having the same employer, a clubhouse can become a collection of social silos- even among the 25 players in the majors. Cliques can form, and cohesiveness can be lost as players gravitate toward those they feel closer to, which means gravitating away from others. With that sensation still fresh in their minds, players and coaches alike wanted a different clubhouse feel in 2017.
“I feel like our camp this year has been the testament to change,” Wainwright said. “We had to go through last year to know how we needed to change. How we needed to be to be a team better. This camp, we’ve had a lot more fun together.”
More fun means a better clubhouse, which in theory means a better on-field unit.
But to get there, they still had puzzles to solve.
The rooms all had themes, although some were more intense than others. While Wainwright’s group (including him and recent draftees Jeremy Martinez, Jake Woodford and Jack Flaherty) was in the Area 51 room. Tommy Pham, who was paired with Zach Duke, Lance Lynn and minor leaguer Jeremy Fernandez, had to deal with Pirates. Escaping the room meant escaping an imagined consequence based on the theme. Gonzales’ five-man group had a much more intense motif.
“We didn’t get murdered by Charles Manson, that was our scenario,” he said. “The first room was pitch black and we had flashlights. It was wild.”
Nearly every group managed to crack the code before time ran out. Some were exhilarated. Some, like Pham were drained.
“Man that was a lot of thinking,” he smiled. “I think I got a 1200 on the first half of the SAT, and that was harder than the SAT.”
The staff of Legends of Xscape are reviewing footage and will let the Cardinals know who was the MVP and which group freed themselves the fastest in the days to come.
More importantly, the idea seemed to work as planned.
“I think everybody had a great time. That was the inspiration.” Wainwright said. “The best part about it is hearing everybody’s stories. Like, ‘There we were. We had to unlock the thing, and the key fell out of the roof.’”
The clubhouse was buzzing with tales of creativity, adversity and various failed gambits as players recounted their adventures. Minor leaguers and veterans laughed and poked fun as a group, performing dramatic reenactments and comparing strategies.
Talk came easy, and camaraderie followed. Thursday it was about an escape room. The hope is that's just the beginning.