When the Mid-Missouri tour of the Cardinals Caravan arrived in Jefferson City on Friday, it received a royal welcome. Well, a gubernatorial welcome, at least.
The group - current Cardinals Trevor Rosenthal and Sam Freeman, minor-leaguers Tim Cooney and Charlie Tilson, and former Cardinals Andy Benes and Rick Horton - met with Gov. Jay Nixon and received a tour of the Capitol Building, including a trip to the top.
"Other than having to stop for an oxygen break, it was all good," Benes said. "Beautiful view up there."
After coming down to earth, the Caravan made its stop at the Missouri Farmers Bureau Center to sign autographs and meet with fans.
"We hear a lot about the Cardinal fans from guys that have played in the big leagues, so it's cool to get to meet some people firsthand, like we got to here," said Cooney, a pitcher for the Memphis Redbirds.
This is the second time Rosenthal has been a part of a Caravan. The Cardinal closer's first experience came after being called up late in the 2012 season, when he wasn't sure what to expect from the Caravan. Now, he has a better feeling for the whole experience.
"I've kind of come to learn that it's cool for us to do as an organization, for them to put us out here and really show our appreciation for the support that fans give us," he said. "Because Cardinal Nation is so big, and just to kind of get out to these cities and meet fans that might not otherwise have a chance to meet players - I've grown an appreciation for that."
Benes can't remember the number of times he has been a part of the Caravan, as a player and an alum.
"I think for the young guys, they kind of get a flavor of, "Man, there's something different about this place,' and about the excitement from the fans," he said. "But also, we'll be riding on the bus, and they're talking about conditioning for spring training and all that, and Rick Horton and I are like, "Man, we're glad we're not doing that.' We're not quite as worried about the diet on the bus as the current guys are."
Freeman, a former Kansas Jayhawk, finds himself in enemy territory with the Mid-Missouri swing of the Caravan going right through the heart of University of Missouri territory. The Caravan began Friday in Moberly and will make its way to Sedalia before stopping at Columbia today at the Missouri men's basketball game. Being around Tiger fans is nothing Freeman can't handle.
"I get reminded of it pretty constantly when I'm here," the reliever said of the Missouri-Kansas rivalry. "It's fine, though. I kind of play it up a little bit. I didn't really grasp a lot of the tradition and stuff. I was there for a semester, so I don't really understand the rivalry, but I'm reminded of it some during the season."
Rosenthal, a graduate of Lee's Summit West High School, is another Cardinal more than familiar with parts of the state not in the shadow of the Arch. He grew up a fan of then-Royal Carlos Beltran and was thrilled to be called up to Beltran's team in 2012 as a Cardinal.
"(I'm) happy for the success that their organization had this past year," Rosenthal said of the Royals, "but I'm definitely happy I ended up where I'm at."
The Cardinals have had some success of their own. St. Louis reached the National League Championship Series for the fourth straight season in 2014 before losing to San Francisco. Though there's always room for improvement.
"The goal is to win the championship every year, win the World Series," Freeman said. "So it's kind of unfinished business, you could say."
Rosenthal and Freeman have about a month to wait before Cardinals pitchers and catchers report Feb. 19 to Jupiter, Fla., for spring training. For Freeman, that's a month too long.
"I'm tired of the workouts, man," he said. "I'm ready to go. I'm ready to start getting active again, so I'm definitely looking forward to it."
Spring training will be the first time the team has been together since the death of 22-year-old outfielder Oscar Taveras on Oct. 26. All players in the Caravan wore a black "OT 18" pin on their jerseys.
Freeman said Cardinal players have kept in touch more this offseason in wake of the tragedy.
"It just kind of brings things in perspective," he said. "You're not guaranteed any more time. I think people kind of realize that a little bit, and they've kind of been keeping in contact a little more."
"We're a big baseball family," he said. "And to have someone taken away, especially in the offseason when we're not together, the mourning process is a little bit tougher and trying to console one another. But I think for all of us it's the general feel that we appreciate the time that we have. Not only because we know in the game, when we're playing baseball, your careers don't last forever, but also our lives and our friendships, just to cherish the time that we have.
"But it'll be good to get down to spring training and kind of have everybody together, and I'm sure we'll have some time to talk about it and pay our respescts and remembrances to the talent that Oscar put on the field every day for us."
Freeman said it will be strange for Taveras not to be there.
"Just the smile, you know. Just being around him," Freeman said. "He brought that energy, so it'll be different for sure. It'll be sad."