(CBS) The Cubs shocked the baseball world Thursday morning by re-signing center fielder Dexter Fowler to a one-year deal with a 2017 mutual option, just days after multiple outlets reported he'd agreed with the Orioles on a three-year deal.
As surprised as outside observers were about this, most in the Cubs organization were just as clueless to what was happening -- notably, the players. That was all part of president of baseball operations Theo Epstein's grand scheme.
Not long after reports surfaced earlier in the week that Fowler had agreed to join the Orioles, Epstein was informed by Fowler's camp that there was no formal deal in place and that he was still on the open market. The sides talked terms, and Fowler drove from his home in Las Vegas to the Phoenix area on Wednesday night for a physical. Once all that was agreed upon and cleared, the Cubs then traded outfielder Chris Coghlan to the Athletics on Thursday morning, primarily to clear some money to add Fowler.
All the while, this was kept completely quiet. In the age of social media, it's difficult to keep anything a secret for long, but Epstein, Fowler and agent Casey Close managed to do so by sticking to a plan.
For Epstein, it meant not telling any of the players what was going on. Manager Joe Maddon was in the loop, but from the sounds of it, few others were.
For Fowler, that meant ignoring texts and calls from any Cubs teammates, including Anthony Rizzo, who had sent Fowler a congratulatory message Wednesday for landing in Baltimore.
"I did send him a text, and I gave him like a few days to settle in before I texted him," Rizzo said in a video posted to ESPN.com. "And I texted him yesterday, and he big leagued me on it.
"We've been in contact all offseason, so I actually congratulated him so he didn't have to file for unemployment."
For Close, it meant not anonymously leaking anything, as some agents do quickly.
From there, it was about executing the entrance Thursday mid-morning at spring training in Mesa, Arizona. To draw the team's attention away from the periphery of one of the diamonds where Fowler would be entering, Maddon gathered the players for a meeting on the mound. The trouble was Fowler wasn't quite there yet, so Maddon had to stall for a few minutes.
"I was standing on the mound," Maddon said in a video posted on the Tribune. "I had to delay a bit. I started talking about, 'We're going to have a moment here, just bear with me, but don't look behind you.'"
To kill a few minutes, Maddon and the Cubs discussed when they're going to shave their heads in spring training, and bench coach Davey Martinez shared a few words.
With eyes focused on the coaches, Fowler, in his street clothes and flanked by Epstein, walked onto the field. Even that didn't immediately give it away. Some Cubs first thought Fowler had come to say goodbye, veteran catcher David Ross told the Tribune.
"I thought we were going to mess with (new Japanese infielder Munenori) Kawasaki," Ross said. "I thought we were going to do some Asian joke or something. I didn't know what was going on. Again, I'm never off my game, and it threw me. I gave him Dex a hug and told him, 'Man, I'm going to miss you.'"
"I was still off. I was like, 'Wait a minute?' Everybody was looking around kind of dumbfounded."
Eventually, everyone caught on that their "brother," as Ross called him, was returning to the North Side.
"I anticipated a strong reaction from our guys, but that was even stronger than I anticipated," Maddon said. "You can see the kind of teammate Dex was to the entire group last year."
Added Ross: "Theo got us all."
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