How the St. Louis Cardinals savored a reconnection in Columbia with the return of the Cardinals Caravan

St. Louis Cardinals mascot Fredbird celebrates a 7-4 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks after a baseball game, Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)
St. Louis Cardinals mascot Fredbird celebrates a 7-4 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks after a baseball game, Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

Fredbird was having a time.

As St. Louis Cardinals fans gathered in a ballroom at Stoney Creek Hotel and Conference Center, the team’s mascot took the opportunity to high-five fans as they entered, danced and posed for photos with children and dash through the aisles between chairs and beneath the room’s pinecone adorned chandeliers.

The costumed mascot, along with current and former members of the team, were in Columbia for a stop on the Cardinals Caravan tour. It was the first such tour since 2020, with cancellations due to the pandemic and baseball’s 2022 lockout.

“It seems like the Dead Sea was only sick the last time we had the caravan,” Cardinals radio broadcaster John Rooney said. “And here we are, we’re finally back. Good to see people face-to-face, talk baseball and get ready for a 2023 season that I know is going to be a lot of fun."

Around the room, parents tried their best to keep children in check, as the younger Cardinals fans squirmed with excitement as the group of players began to take questions. The current players in attendance included utility man Brendan Donovan and pitchers Packy Naughton, Connor Thomas, and Michael McGreevy.

Two alumni players, Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick, were also on stage. Rooney emceed the event, telling stories of Cardinals past and present.

He recapped the 2022 campaign, through the lens of Albert Pujols’ quest for 700 career home runs. Rooney said he called Pujols’ shot on the bus to Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

“I said ‘He’s going to do it tonight,’” Rooney said. “This is the stage for Albert Pujols. He’s back in Los Angeles, he played here last year. The seats will be packed. This game means something in the standings, it means something to Albert, he’s going to do it tonight. And sure enough, when he hit the first home run, I almost fainted and then the second one was a joyous moment.”

After Rooney was done, the players answered inquiries from their youngest supporters. Topics ranged from their favorite baseball movies ("Bull Durham" and "Major League" were popular answers), favorite animals (dogs were mentioned by all except for Naughton, who said horses) and favorite pitchers to face.

For the last one, the players who are currently active in the league deflected in what could have easily been chalkboard material for opposing teams this upcoming summer. Both Ankiel and Ludwick didn’t shy away from naming a name, though.

“Easy one for me,” Ludwick said. “Derek Lowe. Dude couldn’t get me out.”

Ankiel agreed. He said he had played with Lowe as a member of the Atlanta Braves, and claimed the pitcher had trouble getting him out back then.

“Two years later I faced him with the Astros and I hit a pinch-hit home run off of him,” Ankiel said. “Underneath in the tunnel he’s like ‘Congratulations, you’ve now hit every pitch I have out of the park.’”

The fans were largely thrilled to hear everything the players had to say. There were two notable exceptions.

The first came when players were asked who their childhood favorite team was. Thomas, born and raised in Georgia, said, “I’m a Braves fan.”

After the crowd went dead silent, he realized his error.

“I was a Braves fan,” Thomas said as the crowd joined him in laughing.

McGreevy, whose father hails from San Diego, drew boos when he expressed his support for the NFL's Los Angeles Chargers in front of the room, which seemed largely made up of Kansas City Chiefs fans.

“That girl’s gonna cry again with that answer,” Rooney joked, referencing a young fan who had left the room earlier.

After the program, which came in just under 50 minutes, the children in the room lined up for autographs before the Caravan took off for an evening stop in Hannibal.

“Thanks for coming out,” Rooney said. “We’ll see you at Busch Stadium.”

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: How the Cardinals Caravan savored reconnecting in Columbia