JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- Dexter Fowler came around the corner with a big smile and wide eyes.
“That is SUCH a good beard!” he exclaimed.
“It IS such a good beard,” replied Jason Motte, matching Fowler’s grin.
The 35-year-old reliever, back with the Cardinals on a minor league deal this spring, broke away from the media huddle to embrace Fowler. The two spent the 2015 season together in Chicago, and are thrilled to once again share a clubhouse.
It was the second break Motte took during a long interview for a reunion, the first coming when Adam Wainwright broke through the scrum for a hug of his own.
Motte, who threw the last out of the 2011 World Series, beamed as Wainwright approached. The two pitchers shared six years together before Motte left town, first heading north to Chicago, then bouncing from Denver to Atlanta. Wainwright patted his old teammate on the back before pointing at Motte’s resplendent facial hair and offering an approving nod.
“I’ve got a couple different colors in there. I’ve got grey, black, red, brown, probably some food in there. It’s a little bit of everything,” Motte said with pride. “The barber down in Miami, Juice, suggested a shampoo for me to use. Hey, you laugh, I look good.”
In some ways, it’s like he never left. The mighty beard, of course, is familiar. So is his easy smile and sincere demeanor. He still has the same frame; the thick arms and broad shoulders that allowed him to hurl fastballs at triple-digit speeds early in his career.
But he returns to the Cardinals on a minor league deal, knowing the bullpen list he hopes to add his name to is already crowded with candidates.
“I’ll do what I need to do. That’s all I can do. I have goals, I have what I would like to do, but that all starts today,” he said.
Motte, like so many other free agents this offseason, spent his winter waiting for the phone to ring. MLB’s stagnant free agency market left nearly 100 players unemployed, and Motte was one of the lucky few to escape the logjam.
“I’ve been throwing bullpens all offseason. I threw to hitters a couple times in Memphis, I’ve been working out at the university. Just in case if something happened, if the phone call came, I’d be ready to go. Not like ‘hey, I need weeks and weeks to get ready,’” he said. “It all works out like it’s supposed to. If it was meant to be, someone is gonna call. If it wasn’t I’d be at home on carpool duty like I’ve been doing all offseason.”
Motte made 46 appearances for the Braves last season, posting a 3.54 ERA over 40.2 innings. However he struck out 27 and walked 20 for a K/BB ratio of 1.35; a far cry from his career average of 3.0.
the days of triple-digit radar readings may be in the past, but Motte still has confidence he can make the most of his arsenal without the elite velocity.
“I don’t throw 101 anymore, but even when I was throwing really fast, you have to locate. I learned that early on.” he said. “I really only had a fastball until the middle of 2010. I was throwing fastballs to everybody. I didn’t have a choice but to learn to locate it … The only difference now is I might not be throwing 100. Last year I was back around 93-96 a couple times, so I think I got something there. But it’s still about locating. You have to locate and keep them off balance.”
Idly stroking his bristles, Motte reflected on his early years as a pitcher. Converted from a catcher in 2006, the fireballer took just two years to reach the majors. 10 years ago, Motte was in a small, elite class of men who could hit 100 miles per hour. In today’s game, it’s not uncommon to see multiple pitchers on a roster- sometimes in the same game- hit such speeds
As the game changed and he evolved with it, the lessons got distilled down to their purest, simplest form: Throw what you’re supposed to and try not to miss your spot.
“Balls that get hard are balls not executed. That’s another thing I learned here is I have to execute. Throw what Yadi calls and execute that pitch,” he said. “It sounds crazy but [if he calls] a fastball away, throw a fastball away. Don’t let it leak back over the middle where a guy can get a barrel on it. Make a good pitch. So from that aspect, nothing has really changed.”
Motte is a Memphis native, so if he fails to break camp with the big club, he'd likely still remain with the organization as depth. With all the familiar elements- the teammates, the Birds on the Bat hanging in his locker, the bushy beard- that possible reality stands out as strange. Motte, cemented in organizational history as the guy who brought the 2011 trophy home, is now another name fighting for a spot.