For some, today is the official kickoff to a new baseball season. St. Louis Cardinals baseball fanatics will be flooding into the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch just blocks from Busch Stadium. Thousands of passionate fans will line up today through Monday to get autographs and meet their favorite Cardinal players and personalities.

This year’s event is the 23rd annual gathering for the Cardinals Care Winter Warm-up, the St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball team’s charity which helps local children. The annual event is always held over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in January.

For many, this weekend is like an official Cardinals-themed holiday. The most devoted fans show up to meet more than 60 of their favorite players, team officials and broadcasters; get autographs, buy or bid on memorabilia; attend live Q&A events; meet Fredbird; and more. Current team members, former players, and even Hall of Fame members come to WWU to meet their biggest fans.

Three familiar faces will be part of the sea of red this weekend in downtown St. Louis. Three close friends — John Barnett, Justin Nettles and Jason King — will be attending together yet another time. All three are local educators and West County graduates.

Barnett, a teacher and coach at West County, has been best friends with Nettles, a teacher and coach at Potosi, since grade school. They share a love for sports, particularly St. Louis Cardinals baseball.

When Barnett was working as a teacher and coach at Bismarck, his classroom was next to Principal Jason King’s office. King is also a West County graduate and now superintendent at Bismarck, but he and Barnett had not really spent much time together. As they started to get to know one another, they learned of their mutual love for the Cardinals.

One day Barnett saw something online about the Cardinals’ WWU event. After further research, he and Nettles realized it was something they wanted to do. Come to find out, this warm-up would be King’s first time, too.

During his first warm-up event, King recalls asking Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa if he was looking forward to a great season. La Russa told King to get back to him in October. Little did any of them know that 2011 would turn out to be one of the team’s most successful seasons, complete with a World Series title.

For the trio, King said they have typically gone together. “We are all three like-minded in that we have a love of St. Louis Cardinals baseball, and the warm-up is something we look forward to each year. It doesn’t hurt that we are all educators as well as great friends.”

He said they add to their collections, have a lot of fun and make a lot of great memories each year.

Nettles said the group always had to hurry right after school to St. Louis on the Friday of warm-up to retrieve their tickets from will call to beat the long lines. Now, tickets are mailed to fans weeks ahead of time. This frees up time for the fans to hang out in the lobby, make new friends and catch up with old ones, and wait for players.

Many fans hang out until 1 or 2 a.m. to wait for players entering or exiting the hotel. They often stop to chat with fans and sometimes autograph photos or other items.

“We’ve met quite a few new friends over the years that we usually only see this weekend,” said Nettles, “so we meet up with them in the lobby.”

The hotel also has a few restaurants and a Starbucks to make the long hours of waiting a little more enjoyable.

Friday’s routine is usually the same for Saturday night and even Sunday. During the day it’s hectic. Stadium tours are also an option for the weekend, and it’s the only time during the year that fans are allowed into the clubhouse.

King said there is always a great sense of anticipation when they arrive Friday evening. The venue isn’t too crowded at that point, but those early fans are very excited and ready to meet up in the lobby to catch up, catch a glimpse of players, and hopefully get autographs.

“One of the best things is seeing how the players usually take time to interact with kids in the lobby,” said King.

At WWU, King said the atmosphere is amazing because everyone has something in common: a love of Cardinals baseball.

Barnett said WWU is three days of relaxation and “being able to be a kid for a little while.” He said he won’t be one of those guys still in the lobby at 2 a.m. still hoping to catch a player or get an autograph. Instead, he will already be asleep and likely snoring.

“I’m one of those guys who no one wants to stay in the same hotel room with, because I snore,” he said with a laugh. “But I don’t snore enough to wake myself up, and I definitely want my rest instead of camping out in the hall.”

He added that his favorite part of WWU is “spending time with the guys.”

He does walk to a few nearby restaurants for meals, and he has made many friends over the years. They like to laugh about the occasional “crazy fans.”

“The guys who carry three-foot-high Bobbleheads on dollies to get signed by the players,” he said, “and they’re about $800 each. So yes, there are some crazy fans.”

Barnett sees some of these fans at every show.

“We have all made a lot of friends at WWU through the years, and the event almost feels somewhat like a reunion each January,” he said. “It is a great experience.”

Nettles enjoys camping out in the lobby, interacting with fans while they wait to meet players. He recalls 2017’s WWU when the first day was canceled due to an ice storm. He said it was amazing to see so many players, also iced in at the hotel with others, who came down to the lobby multiple times to sign for fans. Harrison Bader even asked a group of kids if they had anything they wanted him to sign.

“Getting away for a weekend and spending time with friends, interacting with the players, and the fact that WWU means that spring training is just around the corner,” said Nettles, “is such a great time. It’s always my favorite weekend of the winter.”

Nettles is excited to meet Paul Goldschmidt and help welcome him to the St. Louis team. “It’s been a long time since we have had a player of his caliber, and everything I’ve heard from him is that he’s a class act, another Adam Wainwright.”

Wainwright is Barnett’s No. 1 player. In fact, when Barnett met Wainwright for the first time at a previous WWU, that was and still is the most memorable moment for him. Barnett said he took Wainwright’s Major League Baseball debut ticket stub for him to sign.

“Wainwright said, ‘Thanks for letting me remember when Victor Diaz hit a three-run homer in my debut,’” said Barnett.

But Wainwright’s walk with Christ has been the biggest motivator for Barnett to closely follow this particular player. “I just heard all these great things about him and wanted to meet him myself.”

He said he also likes the fact that Wainwright signs each thing with a Bible verse inscription.

“One of the best stories I heard was when he was a younger pitcher, Wainwright was the one who guided Chris Carpenter back to God.” To Barnett, that’s very important.

He’s met Wainwright several times at WWU, and he’s once again excited to do it this year. He’s meeting several players this time, including Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, Jack Flaherty, Michael Wacha, Jason Motte, Mike Shannon and more.

Barnett didn’t get to see Wainwright at last year’s WWU. He had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and he and wife Megan were living in Houston while he received treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center. He’s now cancer-free and is beyond ecstatic to be returning to his favorite Cardinal event with Nettles and King and his youngest brother, Jared, and friends Bryce Pruett and Matthew Clifton. Barnett has been a positive mentor to the three young men, all previous athletes of his. He has even inspired Clifton to become an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan.

“My enthusiasm for the Cardinals is contagious,” said Barnett.

King can’t wait for the weekend’s fun. “It isn’t often that fans get the opportunity to see so many other players at a single event. That in itself is the reason I began attending the WWU. It makes for a lot of great opportunities and memories. The fact that all proceeds go to charity makes it even better.”

Everybody has their favorite players. For King, that includes Wainwright and La Russa. He also has autograph tickets to meet a number of players.

King also recalled the ice storm of 2017. He said fans and players alike were iced in. “With nowhere to go, there was a great amount of interaction between the players and fans. It was a great time seeing the players be so gracious to the fans, especially the kids. It was one of the few times where an ice storm turned out to be a positive thing.”

All three are hoping to add some special autographed items to their personal collections of St. Louis Cardinals memorabilia. Barnett’s collection includes World Series, debut and big events ticket stubs and Cardinals Hall of Fame prints.

Nettles has a variety of things, from signed photos to Bobbleheads to World Series Championship items.

“I like to collect photos from big moments in Cardinals’ history.” He said he’s always collected things that he has gotten at the stadium, like souvenirs and giveaway items, since he was a kid. He didn’t start collecting autographed items until around 2011.

King has an assortment of items, including baseball cards, seat backs, balls, gloves, helmets and more. He started collecting Cardinals memorabilia when his father bought him baseball cards. King put them together in Cardinal team sets. Later, he sent cards to the stadium in hopes that players would sign and mail them back to him. His first card was returned by Luis Alicea.

“And from that point on, I was hooked on collecting Cardinals items,” said King.

These three are certainly the definition of true Cardinal fans.

Nettles said his definition of a true Cardinal fan is “someone who is going to support the team [Cardinals] at all times.” He said fans might not always agree with everything they do and every move they make, “but if you’re a fan, you should root for their successes, no matter what.”

King said a true St. Louis Cardinals fan “understands the tradition of excellence that makes St. Louis ‘baseball heaven.’ Legends like Stan, Red, Lou, Bob, Bruce, Whitey and Tony mean something to these fans.”

He added that true fans “remain loyal in tough times and know beyond a doubt that every day is a great day to be a Cardinal.” He added, “The true Cardinals fan lives by the mantra that the only thing as good as a Cardinals win is a Cubs’ loss.”

The three friends attend several home Cardinal games each year. Nettles is also a season ticket holder. He and Barnett even started a new annual tradition where they travel to another stadium to see an away game for the Cardinals “until they’ve seen them all.” They saw two games last summer in Cincinnati. This year they’re thinking about going to Pittsburgh in September.

Nettles gained his love for baseball from his family. He remembers watching his first Cardinals game on TV as a 9-year-old. It was the 1996 NLCS when the Cardinals played at Atlanta and almost made it to the World Series. “From that point on, I was hooked.”

He attended his first game with his parents, brother, aunt and uncle in 1997, about two weeks before the Cardinals traded for Mark McGwire.

“I can remember my dad and grandpa talking about the old Cardinals like Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith, etc.,” he said, “and after that, I started watching.”

He spent every Friday night with his grandpa watching the Cardinal games.

King’s love for the Cardinals of course started with his dad and the baseball card collection. He recalls watching games with him when he was 5 or 6 and attended his first game with his dad in 1989.

“The Cardinals won the game, and Todd Zeile lined a foul ball just over my head,” King said.

His father has been his inspiration for his love of Cardinals baseball. They spent many hours watching games on TV and listening to Jack Buck call games on the radio. “Jack had the ability to make the game come to life through the air waves, and it was just as good as being there live.”

He said he and his dad also “devoured the sports section of our paper, discussing stats and the strengths of each player.” He added that, of course, attending a game was the ultimate treat. “We made a lot of good memories, and my love of Cardinals baseball has endured.”

In fact, he’s passed on his love for Cardinals baseball to his daughters, Janson and Jacey. They love to watch and listen to the games.

“And you won’t find any bigger fans of Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright and Harrison Bader than my girls,” said King. Janson has turned her love of baseball into an even bigger passion for softball. Jacey loves to keep up with the players on social media and is always aware of the starting lineup.

“My wife, Janna, loves attending Cardinals games as well,” said King. “She is a big Harrison Bader fan. I suspect she likes him because he is almost as good looking as I am.”

Barnett confessed that he didn’t really become a Cardinal fan until December 2004. Although his dad, Rich liked Bob Gibson and the Cardinals when he was attending college, Barnett said he was more of a basketball fan. But in 2004, Barnett was a big Oakland A’s fan and his favorite player, Mark Mulder, a pitcher, was possibly going to be traded. When Nettles told Barnett that Mulder might be traded to the Cardinals, Barnett said at that point the Cardinals would become his favorite team. A week later, Mulder became a St. Louis Cardinal and Barnett became a fan.

Barnett started watching games when he was about 6. He remembers the tail end of Ozzie Smith’s career and of course McGwire’s 70th home run. But he didn’t attend Cardinals games regularly until 2005.

Barnett’s father passed away from cancer. To honor their father, Barnett and his younger brothers Steven, Josh and Jared, attended a Cardinals game on the first Father’s Day after his death.

Barnett is now sharing his passion for the Cardinals with his daughters Khloe and Ava and son Elijah. He has attends games with his older brothers, Richard and Jim, and his younger brothers to carry on the Cardinals family tradition.

For Barnett, King and Nettles, continuing their family’s love for St. Louis Cardinals baseball is important. Attending WWU is another much-loved and anticipated tradition.

“The Cardinals’ WWU is something that every true Cardinals fan needs to experience,” said King. “It is an opportunity to make great memories and add fantastic items to your Cardinals collection.”

Entry passes are required for the weekend event. Fans can also purchase autograph tickets in a range of prices, and some meet-and-greet sessions are free.

For information or tickets visit www.mlb.com/cardinals/fans/winter-warm-up, call 314-345-9000, or visit the Cardinals Team Store at Busch Stadium.

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