MESA, Ariz. – Dexter Fowler heard it from his teammates on Monday morning, the whiny, high-pitched voices yelling on the other end of clubhouse: “Ewwww…I’m afraid of beeees!”
No, Cubs strength/conditioning coach Tim Buss didn’t dress up in a bumblebee costume or a beekeeper suit for the team stretch/daily stunt.
But Fowler already pulled off the biggest surprise in camp when he walked into the Sloan Park complex on Feb. 25 – two days after reports had him agreeing to a three-year, $35 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles.
This time, the buzz around Fowler became how he left Sunday’s game after feeling tightness on his left side, which forced Jason Heyward to move from right field to center, where a swarm of bees attacked the Gold Glover with the new $184 million contract.
“It wasn’t the bees,” Fowler said. “My side was tight before that – before I even started the game. And then I figured I ended on a good note.”
Yes, Fowler homered off Seattle Mariners left-hander James Paxton in his first at-bat, and his teammates enjoyed calling him out for that, too. By the third inning, Heyward was trying to escape the bees by jumping onto the center-field fence.
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“(My side) needs to be tight all the time, right?” Fowler said. “If it was something to worry about, I’d be worried. And I’m not worried at all.”
Fowler had been labeled as an injury-prone player with the Colorado Rockies and Houston Astros, and that reputation combined with the qualifying offer made teams hesitant to give up a draft pick – and the bonus-pool money – and make a long-term deal.
The Cubs felt confident they could beat a two-year offer from the Orioles or White Sox, that Fowler felt comfortable enough at Wrigley Field if he needed a soft landing spot.
At the same time, if the Orioles hadn’t slow-played those negotiations, or the free-agent game of musical chairs played out differently, or the Cubs didn’t generate all that extra revenue with a playoff run into the National League Championship Series, then Fowler is now probably wearing black and orange and playing next to Adam Jones instead of Heyward.
“We got kind of lucky throughout this whole process,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But I do think you’re going to see the best of Dexter this year. He had a really good year last year. I think he’s going to surpass that this year.”
Fowler hurt his side hitting the wall trying to make a defensive play over the weekend – not while taking a swing – and that should downplay the injury concerns. But if super-utility guy Javier Baez (thumb) doesn’t have enough time to get ready for Opening Day, then it reinforces the importance of Fowler and how much the Cubs will need their depth to withstand what they believe will be a seven-month marathon.
“When he walked in, everything kind of like felt right,” Maddon said. “Everything felt good to that point. But then all of a sudden, everything felt right. You could see how that last piece just fit in there. There was a place for him and he fit right into it perfectly.
“I don’t know that we knew how important that piece was until it actually came back to us.”
Fowler will get $13 million guaranteed this season, the Cubs betting on the leadoff guy who hit 17 homers and scored 102 runs for a 97-win team last year.
“He’s definitely physically stronger,” Maddon said. “Beyond that, you can truly see that he has a joy for being here. He really does. I absolutely recognize that.
“And I do believe there might be a little bit extra motivation going on right now for the way this all came down this past winter. So I’ll take all that stuff.”
After getting stung at least 10 times by that swarm of bees, Heyward felt good enough to play center field and hit a three-run homer during Monday’s 8-8 Cactus League tie against the Los Angeles Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium.
“I told him it’s the cologne he’s wearing,” Fowler said.