JUPITER, Fla. — Even on days like this, almost a week before the official start of Cardinals spring training, there’s a bullpen of autograph-seekers gathered outside the gates at the team’s complex hoping for a signature as a player turns onto University Boulevard. It’s not unusual for a collector or kid to have a three-ring binder full of baseball cards, organized so that if a player lowers his car window the card is quick-draw available to hand over.
At times this spring, Paul DeJong is going to flip the tradition.
“Some of the rarest cards around,” he joked Thursday morning.
In cooperation with TOPPS, the Cardinals’ card-carrying shortstop will have his own cards that are his to hand out – all to promote academics, science and literacy, and the baseball card manufacturer’s “TOPPS of the Class” program. There are three designs for the exclusive cards, and though DeJong is featured on each he’s not wearing his Cardinals jersey (No. 11 this year) in any of them. On two of the cards, DeJong is sporting a lab coat to promote science, and on the third he’s leaning against the dugout railing with his agent, Burton Rocks, to promote literacy.
In the coming weeks, DeJong will have the cards to pass out at hospital visits he has planned during spring training and other appearances, or just to kids at the ballpark. He also plans to visit Ronald McDonald Houses during the regular season. He’ll have the cards handy.
“I’m looking forward to the face-to-face opportunity they’re going to create – a real chance to talk to a kid and have a conversation over a card,” DeJong said. “This is definitely broadening my scope, my opportunity to have some influence. It’s good to have it in the academic style with academics as the focus. I enjoy that as a lifelong learner.”
DeJong was one of a handful of players who have already reported to the Cardinals’ complex at Roger Dean Stadium for informal workouts. DeJong spends most of the offseason in the Palm Beach area, as does catcher Yadier Molina, and in recent weeks they’ve been joined by a parade of teammates. A group of hitters that took batting practice on Field 1 early Thursday included DeJong, Kolten Wong, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Andrew Knizner, Evan Mendoza, and John Nogowski. Veterans Adam Wainwright, Molina, and Paul Goldschmidt were also around the facility for informal workouts, as were pitchers Brett Cecil, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Austin Gomber, John Gant, Junior Fernandez, Jordan Hicks, and a handful of others.
The Cardinals’ first official workout for pitchers and catchers is Wednesday, though with each passing year more and more players arrive early.
The sounds of spring arrive before spring.
That includes the unmistakable rip of wax packs, especially on the day TOPPS visits camps and players spill and stack and sort and swap cards across the clubhouse table.
This week, TOPPS 2020 cards dropped on shelves with the first series of this year’s cards. Mets slugger Pete Alonso is featured on the (not-so-waxy) wax packs. DeJong has done special cards with the company before – this past Father’s Day, TOPPS released a card featuring Paul and his father, Keith, printing a few for the family – and has sought ways to merge his academic hobbies with his profession. At the same time, “TOPPS of the Class” has long offered free packs to students who present their report card at a participating hobby shop. (And, a TOPPS official stressed, the free cards aren’t just for “good grades” but any report card “to encourage kids to do their best in school and use a free pack of cards as a motivator.”)
A baseball card geared toward that program that DeJong could hand out personally was the blend he wanted. RBI meets GPA. Stats to inspire STEM. The exclusive personal cards which DeJong will distribute this season were the brainchild of TOPPS and DeJong’s agent.
“The cards we’ve created for Paul marry his love of science with his love of baseball,” said Emily Kless, TOPPS’s communication manager. She added how “the idea here is to … encourage them to follow their dreams and instill a love of science and math in them through everyone’s favorite collectible.”
Unsure baseball would be available to him as a career, DeJong went to Illinois State University thinking he might pursue med school. Illinois State, as Illinois State Normal University, in the 1850s to train teachers for the state’s schools, and it spent decades as a teachers’ college. (The writer’s mother is graduate of Illinois State – and, yes, went there to become a math teacher, and she continued to volunteer in schools after retirement.) DeJong was biochemistry major at Illinois State, and on the back of two of the cards it explains how his “childhood love of science came from his grandmother, Sharon Whipple, a chemist and University of Wisconsin grad, who worked at Dow Chemical.” On the same card, DeJong is featured with Dr. Lawrence Rocks, a chemist, professor and author of “The Energy Crisis.”
The themed card for literacy explains on the back on DeJong “got his inspiration for reading from his brother Matthew” and also his grandparents “reading at the library in their home in northern Wisconsin.”
“Through (these cards) our mission is to inspire kids to read, write, and enjoy the idea of storytelling,” DeJong’s agent, Burton Rocks, wrote in a text.
DeJong and Dr. Lawrence Rocks have in recent offseasons met in the lab to run experiments on baseball-related things such as the flight of the ball in specific conditions. A photo of DeJong, wearing lab goggles, from those experiments is featured on a card in his set. They have appeared on MLB Network, New York-area television, and, coming this year, Fox Sports Midwest to discuss their experiments. A year ago they spoke together in Palm Beach to The Society of the Four Arts about “sports chemistry,” focusing on the attributes of long-term athletic performance, tendons and respiration.
All of these things have been part of DeJong’s curiosity and extracurricular interests. As he established himself as a starter in the majors and this past year represented the Cardinals at the All-Star Game, he wanted to find a way to splice all these things into a purpose. Last year, when he busted the lights in the “M” of Big Mac Land, DeJong donated $22,000 to local charities to purchase the “M” and he used the attention he got to connect with and become more active in those charities.
The new cards tuck neatly into his goal.
Not quite business cards, they’re more like challenge coins.
They’re rare. They’re personal.
They allow DeJong to share his interests.
And the best way to get one is to meet him.
“If I can help take away any stigma that’s there, where any kids feel that they can’t pursue science, or they’re not smart enough, or they don’t want to be called a nerd, I want to show how they can,” DeJong said. “Hopefully, a kid can see this, maybe get this card, or better yet now I can talk to them and the card is part of that confidence, that interest to keep studying. Chase all your interests.”