Willson Contreras says goodbye to Cubs fans, Wrigley Field. Will this ever make sense?
In the fantastical world where up is down, good is bad and rich is poor, the Cubs seem to have no use for a three-time All-Star in his prime.
Almost free, Willy.
Free to stop wondering whether the Cubs love him or love him not. Free to get on with his baseball life. Free to win again.
And what might that be like?
‘‘I’m pretty much happy to help another team get to the World Series,’’ Willson Contreras said after a 4-2 victory Tuesday against the Pirates in what he had every reason to assume was his final home game with the Cubs.
Lea este artículo en español en La Voz Chicago, un servicio presentado por AARP Chicago.
Happy? Sure, even if the thought of being traded before the MLB deadline Tuesday makes him very sad, which it most certainly does, and even if it’s hard as hell to say goodbye to Wrigley Field, which he spent the entirety of an all-too-brief two-game homestand doing.
There is life after Wrigley, as one player after another from the 2016 World Series team has experienced, and it can be plenty good. For the 30-year-old Contreras, who is easily one of the top hitters on the trade market, is a talented and respected backstop, is in his prime and has a chance to command a nine-figure deal as a soon-to-be free agent, it might be pretty wonderful.
The rebuilding Cubs don’t want him? Only in the fantastical world where up is down, good is bad and rich is poor does it even begin to make sense.
‘‘I’m going to walk away with my head held high,’’ he said, ‘‘because I did everything I could to make this team better.’’
That goes back to his impossible-to-top arrival on the scene in 2016 and even longer ago than that. Contreras was 17 — a boy — when the Cubs signed him in 2009. By 2015, he was their minor-league player of the year, batting .333 with an eye-popping .413 on-base percentage. And though he was an afterthought in 2015, when Kris Bryant won Rookie of the Year, Babe Ruth showed up in the form of Kyle Schwarber and other young Cubs were killing it, Contreras was already on track to becoming a star in his own right.
Anyone who didn’t already know it surely felt it on June 19, 2016, when Contreras pinch-hit for Kyle Hendricks and — on the first pitch of his first big-league at-bat — crushed a changeup from the Pirates’ A.J. Schugel 415 feet to center field. The Wrigley crowd that had been on its feet and cheering the Venezuelan newcomer before he stepped into the box went absolutely bonkers as the ball soared over the ivy. Javy Baez, waiting for Contreras at home, jumped up and down deliriously. Joe Maddon, standing on the top step of the dugout, beamed. And then — does it get any better? — a curtain call from the crowd. What a moment. What a way to make a first impression.
‘‘It’s an amazing feeling,’’ Contreras said then. ‘‘I don’t have the words to explain how happy I am to be here.’’
Six years later, his love for the Cubs — and for Wrigley — and zest for the game never have been in doubt. Nor has his connection with the fans, who greeted him Tuesday with a standing ovation before his first at-bat. Contreras backed away from the box and doffed his helmet before dumping a first-pitch single off Bryse Wilson into center. He later scored on a double by Ian Happ, another Cub who might be on the way out any day now.
‘‘It was amazing,’’ he said. ‘‘I tried to enjoy it as much as I could.’’
It started here for Contreras against the Pirates and ended here against the Pirates, perhaps not as poetic as a homer in his final Wrigley at-bat in blue pinstripes would’ve been, but rarely is anything that perfect. After the final out, teammates led Contreras to the end of the handshake line and gave him extra space for extra-long hugs. Jason Heyward gave him one worth a thousand words. David Ross lifted him off the ground as if to say: ‘‘You think you’re a better catcher than I was? Damn right you are, my friend.’’ Back in the dugout, Contreras embraced Happ last before dissolving into tears once and for all and heading down the steps to the clubhouse.
‘‘They showed me how much they love me,’’ he said.
There was much to love, including a pinch-hit single in the ninth inning to score Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist and tie the Giants in Game 4 of the 2016 National League Division Series. Contreras pounded his chest and shouted, ‘‘Let’s go!’’ at a visitors’ dugout in hysterics. He was so amped up that first-base coach Brandon Hyde had to rub the rookie’s shoulders to get him to breathe.
Contreras caught the biggest pitches at Wrigley in generations, the ones from Aroldis Chapman that clinched the pennant against the Dodgers that same October. And he started behind the plate — as Hendricks’ wingman — for the two biggest Cubs games in modern history, Game 6 against the Dodgers and Game 7 of the World Series in Cleveland. All he has done since that magical postseason is become a better player across the board.
Contreras didn’t strap on the catcher’s gear for his last home game at Wrigley. Instead, he was the designated hitter, better to preserve him for all the suitors in contention.
He’s almost free.