'I don’t know that we’d be here if it weren’t for the Cardinals' - KMOV.com

'I don’t know that we’d be here if it weren’t for the Cardinals'; What STL fans say to the hosts of spring training

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JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.COM) Small towns, the ones a GPS can’t pick up, sometimes hold the most impactful stories. Some seem small enough to fit in your pocket. Then, when you’re in need of a pick-me-up, you pull it back out. The “everyone knows your name” towns are the kind of towns that always welcome new names to learn. Perhaps this town is too precious to be shared with a GPS.

Welcome to Abacoa.

From restaurants to real estate offices, each building is filled with friendly faces that always give greetings as warm as the weather. Then across the street from the town center sits Roger Dean Stadium.

How does baseball change a small town?

Go just a “foul ball away” from the stadium to JJ Muggs Stadium Grill. Established in 2001, it’s been “16 years of baseball bliss,” said owner Dennis Witkowski.

Previously a national franchise of Pillsbury, Witkowski and some of his ex-partners grabbed hold of the name JJ Muggs when the corporation discontinued it.

“Everybody kind of remembers the name,” Witkowski said. “It goes way back to the early days of Dave Garroway of the Today Show. He had a monkey named ‘J Muggs.’ That monkey had a lot of fame. It’s a name that some people will hear and they’ll instantly remember where it came from.”

It’s a name that’s now synonymous with Abacoa’s downtown, and one any spring training visitor knows well. JJ Muggs has been on the corner of University and Crescent, right across from Roger Dean’s gates, for nearly two decades. Every spring Cardinal fans pour in, and every Witkowski is eager to see them.

“There’s not a lot going on [in Abacoa], kind of quiet. But things sure change when baseball comes to town,” Witkowski said. “It’s hard for people to understand the impact that spring training has on our business.”

More baseball means more hands on deck. During quiet times, Witkowski only has a few employees working. A couple waiters, a cook and a bartender. When the Cardinals are in town, it’s time to buckle down. “Today, I have 14 waiters, 7 cooks, and 4 bartenders. I mean, things just get multiplied so hard with the spring training rush,” Witkowski explained.

Well, that depends on the home team.  

Roger Dean Stadium hosts to two teams: The Cardinals and the Miami Marlins. “The Cardinal impact versus [the Marlins] is very dramatic for us,” Witkowski said. “We get so pumped up for the Cardinal games because of the amount of fans that they generate for us.”

“Normally, I’ll do about 50 lunches a day,” Witkowski said. “The Cardinal days, we’ll do 400 lunches before the game begins. By four o’clock, we’ve done 600 meals. And we’ll do a few hundred more at night.”

Before they pack Busch Stadium every night, Cardinal Nation packs JJ Muggs in Abacoa.  

“They kinda carry us through the rest of the year,” Witkowski said. 

The impact of spring training made Witkowski a Cardinal fan. He’s befriended Jose Oquendo and former Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa. “I’ve had a chance to play golf with [Oquendo] a couple times now,” Witkowski said. “[La Russa] actually launched his book here. I got to sit with Tony in my office for an hour, just kicking back and we became friendly.”

Over the years JJ Muggs has hosted players, coaches and their families for hundreds of meals. They know Witkowski and his son, his current partner and heir to the restaurant. Awhile back, the Cardinals presented Witkowski with a gift: a photo of the Cardinal Hall of Famers, signed by each player. It hangs on the wall in JJ Muggs, a reminder fandom isn’t bound by geography.

“You know, we feel part of the Cardinal family.” Witkowski said.

So are the fellow fans good company?

“They’re just the nicest people we’d ever want to meet,” Witkowski said. “Cardinal fans have earned their reputation as the ‘best fans in baseball.’ It’s really obvious to me and I get to enjoy what wonderful fans they are. ‘They travel well,’ as the saying goes.”

When they travel south, they make their way to a corner restaurant in tiny Abacoa, Florida. There is JJ Muggs, standing for 16 years because it floats in a sea of Cardinal red.

“I don’t know that we’d be here if it weren’t for the Cardinals,” Witkowski said with a smile.

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