By Chris Emma--
CHICAGO (CBS) -- As he turned the corner out to the visitor's dugout, Dexter Fowler revealed his infectious smile, and the feeling of normalcy prevailed once again.
Wearing Cardinals red now instead of Cubs blue, Fowler returned to Wrigley Field on Friday for the first time as a World Series champion, and he was greeted as such by grateful fan base. Behind home plate during batting practice stood a small child with a sign almost as big as the youngster.
You Go, We Go! You Won, We Won! Thank You Mr. Dexter Fowler.
It greeted Fowler as he walked out to the field with the rival Cardinals. As Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein once said, Fowler will always be the man who led off Game 7 of the World Series with a home run.
"We accomplished something that hadn't been done in a lifetime," Fowler said, that smile returning once again.
Fowler received his World Series ring prior to Friday's game in a classy ceremony. Good friends and former teammates Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward presented him with the ring, then the entire team moved out to exchange hugs.
Fowler then was greeted with cheers from Cubs fans once again as he emerged to lead off the game. In familiar fashion, he blasted a home run to the right-field bleachers. This time, there were some boos he rounded the bases.
But memories will always be fond of Fowler, who joined the Cubs in 2015 and made his mark along the way. Fowler had the best two seasons of his career in Chicago, posting a 3.3 WAR in his first year and a 4.7 mark in 2016, a season in which he played just 125 games.
The Cubs felt Fowler's indelible impact each day he was on the field and even more so when he was out of the lineup. They played a rough stretch of baseball in 2016 after Fowler suffered a hamstring injury in June. Now, the Cubs are struggling again without their former leadoff man, entering Friday's contest with a 25-27 record.
Manager Joe Maddon has been shuffling his lineup plenty this season, and that includes at the leadoff spot. He termed "You Go, We Go" for Fowler. The Cubs haven't yet found their catalyst at the top. Kyle Schwarber has struggled to the extent that talk of a Triple-A stint has surfaced.
Ben Zobrist is needed as the cleanup man to protect Rizzo, as Maddon prefers. Rookie Ian Happ led off Friday, but he's been struggling lately. Javier Baez would fit if he was more consistent with his at-bats, but he's not.
"That's a good team over there," Fowler said of the struggling Cubs. "I'm sure they'll figure it out."
Meanwhile in St. Louis, the 31-year-old Fowler is now just finding his form. He entered Friday hitting .230 with a .317 on-base percentage for a Cardinals team that has also been inconsistent, starting the weekend at 26-25.
Fowler bet on himself in 2016 by signing a one-year "prove it" deal with the Cubs, and he won big. The Cardinals paid up, signing him to a five-year, $82.5-million deal in the hopes that his two seasons in Chicago weren't an anomaly. The Cubs never seriously considered re-signing Fowler, believing that their young outfield depth was ready to assume his role. They could use Fowler's consistency at the top of the order.
Maddon was quick to defend Fowler's replacements, instead choosing to remember his positive nature with the Cubs.
"He smiled easily," Maddon said. "He played the game with a lot of joy."
Smiles were all over Wrigley Field as Fowler returned, even as a member of the Cardinals. What's next for both sides remains to be seen, but that was far from the focus as the two teams met Friday.
Win here in Chicago and they'll love you forever. Fowler will always be cherished as a champion.
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