ST. LOUIS – Within days of the St. Louis Cardinals missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010, the team’s front office met and quickly zeroed in on what the club needed to get back to World Series contention. General manager John Mozeliak laid the plan out for the public at the team’s annual postseason media conference.
The Cardinals needed to be more athletic. They needed to catch and throw the ball more skillfully. They needed to add a dash of menace on the bases. As they discussed potential fixes, one other attribute sometimes entered their thinking. They wanted their team to better reflect the city in which it plays.
The player they identified for their search was uniquely qualified to check off each of the boxes. Dexter Fowler has one of the most selective eyes in baseball, making him a perfect puzzle piece for the top of the lineup. He is an established center fielder whose defensive metrics are riding an uptick at age 30, when some players are beginning to slip. He is good for about 19 stolen bases a year, roughly three times what last year’s leading Cardinal base stealer, Stephen Piscotty, managed.
It didn’t hurt that the Cardinals were signing him away from the Chicago Cubs, the rival team he had just helped to its first World Series title since the Teddy Roosevelt administration.
Nor was it lost on the Cardinals as they began contemplating a multi-year, big-money commitment that finding an African-American star could have social benefits in their community. Their background check on Fowler only reinforced their feeling that he was the perfect man for the job, prompting them to offer him a five-year, $82.5 million deal, which he agreed to last week.
“One of the things we think was very important about Dexter Fowler besides the baseball side of what he brought to the Cardinals was his understanding of social issues,” Mozeliak said. “He is very active in understanding what’s happening around him. He’s a very bright and intelligent person and doesn’t shy away from what’s happening in communities.”
Fowler’s signing has already helped reinforce the sometimes rickety bridge between the team and St. Louis’ large African-American community. It was even greeted with a statement of gratitude from the local NAACP.
“Me and my friends look up to him as not only an athlete, but a black athlete. Not many athletes playing baseball are of African-American descent,” said Tommy Woods, a junior infielder at McCluer North High School. “Him being on the Cardinals is just a real inspiration. It helps us stay on top of what we have to and helps us realize there’s a chance for us, and we can always keep striving.”
Woods’ double-play partner, Dexter Swims, agreed: “Dexter Fowler gives us hope that it’s possible for us to make it that far.”
Woods and Swims live in North St. Louis County, within a seven-minute drive of the St. Louis airport. Steer just a tick east, and you arrive in Ferguson, a little town that became a flash point for racial tension after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014. Hundreds of students at McCluer North, many of whom live in Ferguson, protested by walking out of class with their hands raised, forcing a brief closure of the school.
“I went down there because I wanted to see where it happened,” Swims said. “It was kind of touching because the whole community came together, and they were hurt. It was sad to see so many people down and losing hope.”
Last year, just 8 percent of players on the Opening Day rosters of MLB teams were African-American, holding steady from 2012 but still the lowest it has been since the integration era. That decline is felt acutely in St. Louis, which has a large black population and one of baseball’s most adoring fan cultures. The look of the team and the fans in its stadium often hasn’t reflected the faces in the streets around the ballpark.
The city of St. Louis, where Busch Stadium sits in the shadow of the Gateway Arch, is nearly 50 percent black, and the entire region of roughly 2.4 million people, is roughly 18 percent black. The Cardinals haven’t had a black All-Star in 19 years.
Swims said he frequently hears from his black friends and fellow students that baseball is a white man’s game. He counters by filling them in on the history of the sport and the transcendent way his favorite player, Jackie Robinson, changed the game with his bold dashes around the base paths. Both he and Woods have had contact from Division I baseball coaches and are hoping to receive scholarship offers. In that way, they could follow Robinson’s lead. He starred at UCLA before finding fame with the Dodgers.
For years, Swims’ father, also named Dexter, had him watch tapes of baseball from the 1980s and 1990s, when black participation was higher. In 1975, MLB was 27 percent African-American, a number that steadily declined for more than 20 years. At their family gatherings, people openly wondered when the Cardinals would sign or develop another black star. Jason Heyward played in St. Louis for one season but signed with the Cubs a year ago. Fowler could be the star they’ve been waiting for.
It’s a lot to put on one player, particularly one who grew up not in St. Louis, but in Georgia. Fowler, however, sounds up to the task of embodying something more than his ability to catch a baseball or hit one. Before he signed with the Cardinals, he had a telephone conversation with Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. A day later, at the press conference announcing his signing, he said the talk helped him feel more comfortable about making St. Louis his next baseball home, maybe his last. Fowler has previously played in Colorado, Houston and Chicago. He has a blanket no-trade clause.
“Just hearing the joy Ozzie had for the city, it definitely helped,” Fowler said. “You look at Lou Brock and some of these other guys, this is a good organization.”
Fowler, who is married to Darya Aliya Fowler, a woman of Iranian descent, said he would embrace helping build bridges between communities in and around St. Louis.
“I wouldn’t say it’s forced. It’s just something God has blessed me with, to be able to walk in a room and get along with everybody. My parents are the same way,” Fowler said. “You’ve got to look past everything and realize everybody is themselves, and you’ve got to be humble about it.”
Smith would like to see the Cardinals with three or four prominent black players instead of one, but he understands the changing demographics within the game. Last season, reserve outfielder Tommy Pham was the team’s lone black player until pitcher Jerome Williams arrived late in the season. The Cardinals had an otherwise diverse roster with players of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Colombian and South Korean descent.
“It’s very important to have a player like Dexter. An organization has to start looking like its community,” Smith said. “If it doesn’t look like its community, then when you look at the ballpark you don’t see the community. It’s got to be more inclusive. If you want more African-Americans at the ballpark, the imperative is to get African-American players. If you get them, and they go out and do their job every day and entertain people, you’re probably going to get more people out at the ballpark. This is not rocket science.”
The heir to a team that Branch Rickey ran before he was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke baseball’s color barrier by signing Robinson, Mozeliak is aware of the Cardinals’ place in the community.
Four of the team’s 10 all-time WAR leaders are black, and three of those players — Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith — are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The 1964 Cardinals, in particular, helped reinforce the idea of integration when, in the World Series, they upset the New York Yankees — still largely segregated under GM George Weiss — with a team dominated by stellar black players such as Gibson, Brock, Bill White and Curt Flood. The Cardinals appeared in three more World Series in the 1980s, again behind largely African-American talent such as Smith, Willie McGee, Lonnie Smith, George Hendrick and Vince Coleman.
“Dexter Fowler has such a unique opportunity to really kind of build on that legacy, and we’re so proud of the Cardinals, who made not only a great decision on a player, but also in continuing to diversify and to keep inclusion at the forefront of their operation,” said John Gaskin, spokesman for the St. Louis County NAACP.
The Cardinals seem quietly confident they got the right man. If they’re right, his absence will hurt the rival Cubs. He’ll continue to get on base at a high rate and hit the occasional home run. He’ll stabilize their outfield and unclog base paths that seemed lined with molasses when the Cardinals were running.
If it works out as well as they hope, he’ll also look around and embrace his new neighbors. He’ll make Busch Stadium look more like the blocks around it, and he’ll make the blocks around it feel more like they’re part of what’s happening at Busch Stadium.