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Before Allen Craig had an at-bat with the Cardinals, he had a following.

He was first introduced to it at a Winter Warm-Up.

Back in January 2010, Craig, several months away from his major-league debut, came to the Cardinals’ annual fanfest to sign autographs and receive an award as the organization’s minor-league player of the year.

He never had seen the stadium he now calls home. In fact, he had never been to St. Louis before. Yet there at the Warm-Up was a line of fans, scores deep, waiting for his signature, some with his minor-league baseball card in hand.

“In the minors, there’s not that much interaction with the major-leaguers. There’s this feeling that what you’re doing may not be recognized,” Craig said. “There were all the fans, waiting, and they know what you’re doing, know all of your numbers, and talk about when you’re getting to St. Louis. … You get a feel for how interested they are in you even then.”

The 17th annual Cardinals Care Winter Warm-Up begins its three-day run Saturday at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch. What serves as the club’s ceremonial first pitch of the new season also is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Cardinals’ charitable arm, Cardinals Care.

Funds raised through sales of $40 adult passes for all three days, autograph tickets ($75 for Yadier Molina again this year), and auctions have helped Cardinals Care donate more than $18 million since 1997 to programs and facilities geared toward children, a club executive said.

Officials have described the Warm-Up as a “kickoff” and a “first look” at the team for the new season. It also has started to serve as a crystal ball.

In recent years the Cardinals have increased the prospects attending the Warm-Up.

Craig was among the first when he came in 2010. He debuted then as a free autograph and has climbed to $30 this season, the sure sign of being a regular.

This year, fans will get their first Warm-Up look at outfielder Oscar Taveras, the club’s top prospect. Tickets for his autograph cost $10, and they sold out swiftly.

First-round pick Michael Wacha and minor-league pitchers Seth Maness and Jordan Swagerty also are scheduled to appear. Not one has thrown a pitch in the majors.

“We want to give them some way to experience what St. Louis baseball is all about,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “Getting them to the Warm-Up gives them a chance to become familiar with all of the culture. It is a way for them to recognize what baseball means here and help them understand a way to give back.”

Michael Hall, the Cardinals’ vice president in charge of Cardinals Care, said he meets with Mozeliak to determine which young players should be featured at the Warm-Up.

The rising interest in the younger players is reflected in the price of their autographs. Pitching prospect Shelby Miller is up to $15 this year, rookie Matt Adams is $5, and the $10 donation to get Taveras’ autograph is twice as much as it costs to get an autograph from Mitchell Boggs, the NL leader in holds and a reliever for Team USA.

“I think our fans are educated about who they are, their potential, and there is this anticipation around them,” Hall said. “They want to see them before they get up here.”

Molina, Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and David Freese are the highest-priced autographs for current players, all at $75.

Tickets for autographs went on sale online in December. For most players, 400 tickets were available, and tickets for 18 active or minor-league players are sold out. Former manager Tony La Russa returns to the Winter Warm-Up after a year away, and tickets for his autographs are sold out. The sellouts are an indicator of attendance, but passes still remain, Hall said. A will call window opens today at the Hyatt at noon, where passes and autograph tickets will be on sale.

Tickets for manager Mike Matheny’s autograph session Monday are on sale at the event.

Cardinals Care pays travel expenses for players — current, former and future — who attend the Warm-Up, but they are not compensated for appearances.

The money that Cardinals Care receives from the event helps fund ventures such as the youth-league program Redbird Rookies, the construction of youth ballparks in area neighborhoods, grants, and donations like those made to Joplin, Mo., as it recovered from tornado damage.

Hall said the club is “sensitive” to the timing as the Warm-Up asks a fan base to spend more at the same time season tickets are being sold and a new third jersey is at the fan store.

“They can spend a lot of money to support the team, and we try to look at the Warm-Up as it is, a fund-raiser, but for it also to be more of a fanfest,” Hall said. “We have to be aware that some people cannot afford the autograph tickets and we still need to give them a chance to see the players in a more relaxed setting, as personalized as we can.”

Craig said as a Warm-Up rookie he recalled the “times where you’re connecting with fans, not just signing.”

He also remembered a moment that spurred him. The Baseball Writers’ Dinner is a fixture of the weekend – the 55th annual takes place Sunday night – and it was during it in 2010 that Albert Pujols lauded what Craig had done in the minors.

He had an unexpected follower, one true to the Warm-Up theme.

The event tends to look forward.

Said Hall: “It’s the event that lets everybody know that baseball is right around the corner.”

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