As I entered the Hyatt, all-together too early but much too excited to stay away any longer, the first signs of Winter Warm-Up were immediately apparent.
Cardinal fans stood in the lobby at least an hour before the first scheduled signing of the day. A multitude of placards and posters directed traffic through the plush maze of the hotel’s imposing structure. And a small army of white-shirted volunteers manned booths, worked desks, managed autograph lines…and even spared a moment to talk with those of us with a bit of time to kill.
“I’m a talker,” Patty Wood, the gracious anchor of the Talent Check-In desk, said with a smile. As a Home Economics teacher in St. Louis County, Patty said she’s “in the business of talking,” but for the last eight years, she’s found the time to make volunteering at the Cardinals’ Winter Warm-Up her business as well.
“It’s about the kids,” she said, as she casually worked to tie cords onto the never-ending assembly line of passes and press credentials. “I’m involved with other charities that get money from the Cardinals, so if I can help them raise the money to help as many people as I can, then that’s why I like to do it.”
The Winter Warm-Up is many things to many people. Fans see it as a chance to finally score that hard-to-get autograph. Collectors think of it as a unique opportunity to take advantage of deeply-discounted memorabilia. And the media views it as an offseason harvest of player access and team news – grueling but fruitful.
But at its core, the event is an extravagant fundraiser for the Cardinals’ community foundation known as Cardinals Care.
“Our mission is caring for kids,” said Executive Director of Cardinals Care and Vice President of Community Relations, Michael Hall. “We support our youth baseball development program called Redbird Rookies, and we give cash grants to other non-profit organizations that support kids within the metropolitan area.”
According to Hall, Cardinals Care awards nearly 300 grants per year, most between $1,000 and $3,000 each. Recipients routinely include national organizations like the March of Dimes or Autism Speaks, but the foundation also benefits a number of schools in the area as well.
“A lot of schools need smart boards,” said Hall, “or maybe some equipment in the computer lab. A lot of elementary schools will update some of their playground equipment, equipment for their gym, or things of that nature.”
For Hall, watching Cardinals Care invest in the local community and directly affect people in need is “very rewarding.” He has the air of a man who believes in his work and the integrity of his employer. He speaks easily and openly about the mission of Cardinals Care and its efforts to improve the community around it.
But while his role in the organization clearly excites him, it’s another subject that finally broke the cool countenance of the charity’s head man.
“My volunteers are what help us grow,” he said with a toothy grin, “and help us do what we do. They’re part of Cardinal Nation. They’re Cardinal fans and their hearts are in the right place. They want to do good.”
* * * * *
Peggy Phillips sits comfortably in a couch outside the three media rooms positioned side-by-side – one labeled “Print Media,” one labeled “Overflow Media,” and a third designated as the interview room.
“At least this year they have couches!” she said with a grin. “Last year, these weren’t here.”
As it turns out, last year was Peggy’s 15th as a Winter Warm-Up volunteer. “This is my 16th year, and this is the 16th Winter Warm-Up.”
Peggy’s assigned area is separated from the constant flow of fans and autograph hounds by a simple, carefully positioned curtain. Attendees pouring out of the fourth floor elevators – their arms loaded with bats, balls, and all sorts of baseball memorabilia – are anxiously unaware that just a few feet away, the very players they’ve paid hundreds of dollars to meet are comfortably chatting, one-by-one, with journalists, TV personalities, and other media types. Occasionally, one of these fans inadvertently wanders through the curtain, a bewildered look on his face, lost and disoriented.
He is quickly met by Peggy.
“Can I help you,” she politely asks, planting her diminutive frame squarely between the large man in a Cardinals jersey, his head and shoulders easily towering above her.
“I’m just looking for the Clubhouse presentations,” he says. He shifts his feet to his left, attempting to subtly side-step the volunteer obstacle in front of him. Peggy casually matches his step, refusing to give an inch.
“That’s back through the curtain and down the hall,” she says, pointing behind the man.
“Oh,” he says. He side-steps to his right. “I thought it was back here.”
Peggy cuts him off. No ground lost.
“No, I’m sorry,” she says, pointing again, “It’s back through the curtain. I’m sure one of the volunteers outside can help you.”
The man looks down, perhaps finally noticing the presence of the insistent woman blocking his path. He thinks silently for a moment before finally turning and walking back through the thin veil.
Peggy returns to her couch and smiles.
Her pride in what takes place here is evident. This is a labor of love, this dedicated weekend of service for children who might benefit from the funds generated from ticket sales, autographs, and much more.
“I believe in the cause,” she said, “They build fields in places where kids don’t know what it’s like to have a really cool ball field. I went to Yadi’s new field last year…it was awesome!”
The field Peggy mentioned is Yadier Molina Field, a six figure, state-of-the-art investment that includes a solar powered scoreboard. It was built through the Redbird Rookies program of Cardinals Care and sits on the site of a former parking lot in Wellston, MO. According to Wikipedia, “Wellston is one of the 10 poorest cities in Missouri” with 59.2% of families and 68.1% of the population below the poverty line.
“To see the neighborhood where this ball field was built,” said Phillips, “And to see the people that were there and to see the money that was put into this…it’s heart-warming.”
It’s opportunities like that – getting the chance to see Cardinals Care in action – that really hooks volunteers like Peggy for good.
“It’s not like somebody’s benefitting from this,” she said, referring to fundraisers like the Winter Warm-Up. “Watching the money go back [into the community], it’s all a humanitarian kind of thing, and that excites me.”
Of course, that’s not all that excites her. As Hall pointed out, Peggy is not only a volunteer for a charity fundraiser – she’s also a Cardinal fan.
“I just love the excitement of the fans with all the players here,” she said. “The fun of being here on these three exciting days when you’re a Cardinal fan…” She paused, suddenly reminiscent of one of her favorite moments as a Warm-Up volunteer.
“You know, a couple of years ago, Yadi came and gave me a hug while I was standing here,” she said, winking at me with an impish grin. “That’s definitely a perk.”
Because of her longevity, Peggy also enjoys a few additional perks that go above and beyond the occasional player encounter.
“Because I’ve been here all this time,” she explained, “I’m considered a Team Captain. The Team Captains get to choose a player…who I want to sit with and which hour.”
Most players are scheduled to sign for approximately two hours, although many go beyond the allotted time to make sure every fan gets an autograph. This year, Peggy chose the first hour of new Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny’s session.
“I sat with him in 2001, when he was a player,” she said. “He’s really cool. He’s just a gentleman – very personable – and the fans love him. You like to sit with that kind of player because of the reaction, the energy, the interaction…”
She paused again, sliding up to stand beside me with a mischievous look on her face. “And, you know…rubbing elbows with them.”
Across the expanse of the event’s main floor, Patty Wood echoed that sentiment.
“This is something we can do to be part of that,” said Wood. “To be part of Cardinal Nation.”
For volunteers like herself, the Winter Warm-Up provides an opportunity for members of Cardinal Nation to come together, to get to know each other, and perhaps the chance to meet a player or two.
“We all have that common bond that we’re huge Cardinal fans,” Patty said. “[It is] kind of a sense of family – extended family, not ‘exchange Christmas cards’ family – but you do run into people at the ball park and say, ‘Hey! We worked together at Winter Warm-Up.’ You may not remember their name, but you remember you stood next to them for three days.”
Like Peggy, Patty also sees multiple side benefits to volunteering at the event. One of them seems to be an informal education from what some may call the must-see Cardinals Symposium of the year.
“Cardinal fans are very knowledgeable,” Wood said, “and when you’re here, you learn the ins and outs. If you’re standing in that ballroom next to that stage, you’re going to learn what Mozeliak’s talking about, what Matheny’s talking about…you’re going to learn a lot of that stuff.
“It’s kind of a hobby for us.”
That ‘hobby’ has, in part, led scores of Winter Warm-Up volunteers to return year after year to work the annual event. Each season, fans come and go, players depart for bigger contracts and fun in the sun, and Hall of Fame managers ride off into the sunset with a World Series trophy nestled comfortably in each saddle bag – but the Winter Warm-Up volunteers remain.
They work the lines, man the desks, and oil the works of a three-day fan-focused extravaganza. Their love, their loyalty – and, yes, their hearts of gold – form the core of Winter’s most treasured Cardinals event.
Much can be said about the valued volunteers of Cardinals Care, but perhaps Michael Hall’s simple statement said it best.
“Our volunteers are so special,” he said, smiling from ear to ear, “and we’re very fortunate to have them.”