ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- It may seem silly to ascribe significance to a fan festival in January, but Saturday’s Winter Warm-Up sure felt like a major turning point for Dexter Fowler.
Fowler was initially absent from the list of scheduled guests, which would have made it three straight years he was MIA. The first opportunity was scrapped when brutal winter weather disrupted travel for several players, the second absence was due to a conflict with family plans.
After the worst season of his career, one in which he had to switch positions and saw his offensive numbers tumble to career lows, many in Cardinal Nation believed he was simply avoiding any further interaction with a fanbase that had been unrelentingly vocal in their displeasure with his performance.
Fowler took heaps of grief from Cardinal supporters, some of which was so caustic it drove his wife off social media. He struggled with depression (which he recently opened up about to the Post-Dispatch), and seemed to withdraw. The beaming star from Chicago’s World Series team had become a spectre of himself in St. Louis.
“You know you’re in a rut. You don’t know what it is,” he said. “It was kind of a valley.”
So when his name appeared on the itinerary for Saturday, it was a surprise.
Fowler had originally planned to be at former MLB player Chris Young’s wedding in Mexico this weekend. Young mentored Fowler when he came into the league, and the two have remained very close.
But after some thought, Fowler decided he wanted to connect with fans, to get a fresh start, even if he wasn’t sure how they’d receive him.
“I felt like adjusting my plans and kind of gave it a leap of faith, I guess,” he explained. “Just hoped they’d give me a chance. That’s all you ask for. I think the person I am would change their mind if they got a chance to meet me.”
Cardinal fans, at least the ones who braved the cold to make it downtown to the Hyatt, responded with open arms.
There was a steady stream of eager autograph seekers. Amatuer photographers craned their necks and stretched their arms to get a Twitter-worthy picture. There were giggles at jokes and sincere handshakes. One child brought a giant cutout of Fowler’s face, and when his father pushed him forward to meet his favorite player, he nervously edged to the table, poster board in hand.
“I love it!” Fowler said, flashing his big grin. Within seconds, the outfielder had cleared a path for the boy to come on stage for a photo.
As a reintroduction of sorts, it couldn’t have gone better for either side.
“It’s been great. As cold as it is out there, it’s warmer in here. Which is awesome. They’ve received me well. That’s all you can ask,” Fowler said after his autograph session. “I felt like I owed them. A lot of people don’t know. For those whole Cubs conventions, I didn’t go to one of them. I couldn’t make them. But, this is my first one in a long time, and it’s been great. It’s been great. Looking forward to more.”
And not just on the field.
The 34-year-old, now a right fielder, is chasing a return to the dynamic player the Cardinals chased so aggressively in the 2016 offseason.
After hitting 18 home runs and batting .264 his first year in St. Louis, his engine never turned over in 2018. He hit .180, slugged .298, and reached base at a .278 pace. He had his lowest hard-hit percentage and lowest barrel percentage of his career, and generally looked like he was stuck in quicksand at the plate and in the field.
He tried to make adjustments, and those were followed by further adjustments, until nothing felt familiar.
Poor performance drew heavy criticism from the fans, and the combination almost certainly compounded his depression. Before long, it felt like a lost season.
At one point this offseason, there was heavy speculation about whether he even had a future with the team. Eventually, Fowler, manager Mike Shildt and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak had a meeting to address what lies ahead.
“I feel like it was all up in the air, but they came out – me, Shildty, and Mo we kind of hashed it out,” Fowler said with a chuckle. “It was a good talk. It was a good talk. Put everything behind us, almost like a clean slate. It’s been great.”
Now, he’s determined to make 2018 a footnote for his time in St. Louis, not his legacy.
“You didn’t have the season that you want to have and there’s way more left in the tank. I feel like they haven’t gotten the version of me that they expected to get,” he said.
His physical health is restored. He’s been testing his lower half and has come away feeling confident, saying Saturday he has his speed back.
More importantly for Dexter Fowler the person, his mental health is better too.
“I use my faith, so I prayed on it and used my family, leaned on them, my friends, and obviously the birth of my little baby girl. That helped out a lot as well,” he said.
In some ways, it felt like the final piece of the turnaround was a few hours spent in a St. Louis hotel ballroom in January.