180 minutes in Mesa: Inside Dexter Fowler's surprising return to Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – The surprising return of Dexter Fowler to the Chicago Cubs was cloaked in secrecy. Here’s the timeline of events that brought Fowler to the pitching mound during drills to announce his return.

11:02 a.m.: The Cubs that announce Chris Coghlan has been traded to the Oakland Athletics for pitcher Aaron Brooks. Although a surprise, the move is not a complete shock. The Cubs have been looking for pitching depth all offseason. Still, Coghlan was a valuable piece of their team the past season, and he provided depth in both the infield and outfield.

11:25 a.m.: After writing a story about the trade, I head outside to watch practice. Team president Theo Epstein indicates he will speak to reporters about the Coghlan trade in a “few minutes.” As I walk to a far practice field with another reporter, Epstein comes out of a side entrance on the minor-league side of the Cubs' practice facility. With him, dressed in street clothes, is Dexter Fowler, who I believe – as does the rest of the baseball world – has signed with the Baltimore Orioles. So I thought. I had to do a double take. Fowler gives a hush sign as he walks toward the field.

11:26 a.m.: With the players gathered on the mound, Fowler approaches. Manager Joe Maddon had called them in and delayed until Fowler arrived for the surprise.

“I had no idea,” pitcher Jason Hammel said. “Joe said we were going to have a moment, and I thought for sure he was bringing in some circus animal or some type of weird magician doing something.”

Kyle Schwarber added: “He told us not to look around, but knowing me, I had to turn around and look really quick. I was like, 'Man, that really looks like Dexter walking here. I thought he was with the Orioles.’”

Catcher David Ross prides himself on knowing what’s going on with his team. But he had no clue.

“I thought we were going to mess with [Munenori] Kawasaki,” Ross said of being called to the mound. “I didn’t know what was going on. I’m never off my game, and that threw me. Theo got us all.”

11:36 a.m.: The Cubs send an official release saying they have signed Fowler to a one-year deal.

11:50 a.m.: Fowler and Epstein hold a news conference, where Fowler says he never had an agreement with the Orioles and he doesn’t know where those reports came from. He admits he turned down more money elsewhere to return to the Cubs for $8 million in 2016, along with a $9 million mutual option for 2017, which the Cubs can buy out for $5 million.

12:30 p.m.: Joe Maddon talks with reporters and shares that he nearly sent Fowler a congratulatory text regarding his signing with the Orioles.

“When I heard about it, I was ready to text him and congratulate him, and then I was told not to do that,” Maddon said with a laugh. “So I didn’t.”

1 p.m.: Cubs players continue to express their shock at having Fowler back. At his locker, Anthony Rizzo shakes his head. He can't believe he was duped.

“I told him a week or two ago, if you sign with us and just show up and don’t tell me, I’m not going to have that,” Rizzo recalled. “Obviously, that’s what he did, and no one knew.”

Rizzo had an inkling that something was going on -- but never about Fowler.

“I sent him a text yesterday, and he big leagued me on it,” Rizzo stated. “Ran into Theo yesterday, and he said, ‘Hey, I got a surprise for you guys.’ But when someone says they have a surprise, you think elephant, giraffe, you don’t know. That was the last thing on my mind.”

Ross continued to be dumbfounded.

“I sent him a text message last night saying, ‘Congrats, we’re going to miss you,’” he said.

1:30 p.m.: Fowler is seen heading into the Cubs’ offices to finish the logistics of his return. The whirlwind morning has come to an end.

“We had to set it up,” Maddon said of his announcement on the field. “It’s great to have him back.”