Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras has no hard feelings toward Cubs

Contreras, who will be making his Wrigley return Monday, remains close with former Cubs teammates.

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 Willson Contreras, who has rebounded from a rough start this season at the plate, admits he’s still learning “The Cardinal Way.”

Willson Contreras, who has rebounded from a rough start this season at the plate, admits he’s still learning “The Cardinal Way.”

Mark J. Terrill/AP

Willson Contreras sent a congratulatory text message to Cubs left fielder Ian Happ as soon as he learned his former teammate agreed to a three-year, $61 million extension.

“The thing that surprised me the most is the timing when he got it,” Contreras said. “I’m glad he got it. He wanted to stay there. He even told me he didn’t want to go anywhere else. I’m really happy for him.”

Once upon a time, Contreras wanted to stay with the Cubs. But as his seven-year tenure progressed, he gradually realized that wasn’t going to crystallize and eventually signed a five-year, $87.5 million contract with the Cardinals to replace catching legend Yadier Molina.

Contreras, 30, an emotional three-time National League All-Star, knows that fans could be torn when he returns Monday night to Wrigley Field for the first time since his farewell game Oct. 2 — this time in an enemy uniform.

“I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a lot of fans that are going to be happy to see me,” Contreras said before poring over scouting reports for a game April 24 against the Giants. “And there’s going to be a lot of fans that think I betrayed them because I’m playing with the Cardinals.

“But it’s part of baseball, part of the business, and we have to understand [the Cubs] wanted to move on. I understood that and was able to get an agreement with the Cardinals, a great organization that has won 11 World Series, and it was a new experience for me.

“A lot of times as a human being, we’re afraid of leaving our old place, but I had to. I understood that and respect that.”

Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner believes Contreras deserves a warm welcome.

“He was a World Series champion here,” Hoerner said. “That should be respected forever, all the guys who were part of that team. He was part of the organization for a long time. That shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Signing with the Cardinals allowed Contreras to commute from his South Florida home for spring training. When asked if he missed training in Arizona, Contreras paused for several seconds.

“I think I missed my ex-teammates I have there,” Contreras said. “I had good relationships with Ian, [Adbert] Alzolay, Nico and all my guys. I wish them nothing but the best.”

Conversely, the Cardinals are extremely pleased with Contreras’ commitment, which started shortly after his signing Dec. 7 when he sent a text message to manager Oliver Marmol to seek as much internal information on the pitching staff.

That devotion carried into spring training when he bypassed an opportunity to play for his native Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic and continued after a loss at Seattle when he suggested his pitchers be “mean” after allowing several hits on two-strike counts.

“I have to let them know to figure it out early in the year,” Contreras said about 100 steps from the visitors’ dugout at Oracle Park where he and Anthony Rizzo argued two years ago. “I’d rather say it earlier than later. Because now it’s time to make adjustments and get better.”

After a 3-for-29 stretch with no extra-base hits through mid-April, Contreras rebounded with a 10-for-22 stretch with five doubles and two homers.

“I think his demeanor fits the team well,” pitcher Miles Mikolas said. “He’s a fired-up guy, and I think that’s good for our team. His bat is starting to get hot, so it’s great to have that kind of presence in the clubhouse.”

Contreras admits he’s still learning “The Cardinal Way,” a longstanding philosophy rooted deep in player development and recently injected with analytics.

“Like anything, you’re learning as you go,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. “But he’s putting in the effort. He understands that how we do things here might be a little different than what he’s used to. I think his attitude and the way he’s going about it is great.”

The process continued into the late spring because 13 players on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster participated in the WBC.

But Contreras has scored points with his teammates for his willingness to question umpires on balls and strikes.

“It’s a catcher’s job to be able to find ways to get a point across but still win the umpire over, not just piss people off,” Marmol said. “It’s an area he’s done well in. This is a highly competitive, emotional catcher, but his ability to compete and still keep his cool with how he’s handling the pitcher and talking to the umpire has been better and better every day.”

Like most former Cubs stars who return to Wrigley in an opposing uniform, Contreras is likely to receive a video tribute before Monday’s game.

Contreras acknowledges his career might have stalled at third base had former Cubs player personnel director Oneri Fleita not suggested he try catching in instructional league in the fall of 2011.

“Oneri always was honest to Latin players,” Contreras said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be a catcher. I would love to see Oneri [at Wrigley] and let him know how thankful I am.”

Fleita is in his seventh season with the Phillies, serving as a scouting coordinator in Mexico.

Contreras also praised minor-league coaches Desi Wilson and Tom Byers with enhancing his development in the minors but sensed the organization was changing rapidly in 2022.

“It was time to move on.”

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