Ex-Cub Willson Contreras embraces villain role in emotional return to Wrigley Field

Contreras expressed gratitude for Cubs fans but also has been happy to stoke the flames of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry since signing with St. Louis.

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TheCardinals’ Willson Contreras encourages the crowd’s boos and applause as he watches his hit off Cubs starting pitcher Marcus Stroman during the second inning Monday.

TheCardinals’ Willson Contreras encourages the crowd’s boos and applause as he watches his hit off Cubs starting pitcher Marcus Stroman during the second inning Monday.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Willson Contreras let the grin spread across his face. There was pure delight in that look, plus a glint of mischief. It was an expression Cubs fans had rallied behind when Contreras wore blue pinstripes.

Would any part of you embrace being the villain in the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry now?

‘‘There’s a pretty good chance,’’ he said, chuckling. ‘‘Probably the welcome back is going to be 50/50. Fifty percent is going to be happy, 50% is going to boo me. Which is acceptable.’’

Contreras’ return to Wrigley Field with the Cardinals on Monday came during a tumultuous time for him and his team. The Cardinals had lost six series in a row and snapped an eight-game losing streak Sunday. And over the weekend they shifted Contreras out from behind the plate — at least temporarily.

Those themes took over Contreras’ pregame news conference, condensing the nostalgic musings that are hallmarks of the ‘‘homegrown player returns with new team’’ interview genre. But because Contreras had been more than ready to stoke the flames of the rivalry, even those came with intrigue.

He hadn’t minced words in February, when he told Bally Sports Midwest, ‘‘I like this better; it’s a better organization,’’ sparking an uproar on social media.

‘‘If I did something in the past that [hurt] some fans’ feelings or people’s feelings, I really apologize,’’ Contreras said unprompted. ‘‘But I would never say anything against the Chicago Cubs or even anything against the fan base. I’m a really humble guy, really thankful. And the memories that I created here, they’re not going to go away like that.’’

That’s why Contreras — who went 2-for-4 with a run scored and two RBI, including a tiebreaking double in the sixth inning of the Cardinals’ 3-1 victory — wasn’t going to be mad at boos from a fan base he said he always would be grateful for.

‘‘It’s completely different now,’’ Contreras said of returning in a new uniform. ‘‘Going back to my first home, the city that gave me the opportunity to become a developed player, to the field that watched my growth for six years and the fan base that watched me play every day, I’m excited. It’s been an emotional last few days for me, for sure.’’

Contreras spent more than 13 years in the Cubs’ organization, winning a World Series and becoming a three-time All-Star. Frustrations rose in his last season in Chicago, as he expressed his affinity for the club, city and fan base while the Cubs prepared to move on. They had a trade in place with the Astros at the deadline, but it fell apart at the 11th hour.

After Contreras signed a five-year, $87.5 million contract with the Cardinals during the offseason, the Cubs signed a second defense-first catcher, Tucker Barnhart, to pair with Yan Gomes.

Now, as Contreras faces the organization that converted him from third base to catcher in the minor leagues, it’s unclear when he will be behind the plate again.

‘‘I haven’t heard one person telling me that I won’t be behind the plate or, ‘We don’t want you to catch anymore,’ ’’ Contreras said. ‘‘I don’t think that’s the case.

‘‘We want to keep communicating. They signed a catcher. They have a catcher, and they have him for five years.’’

Contreras wouldn’t get into the details of the Cardinals’ plan, leaving the saga as head-scratching as it began. The Cardinals (12-24) aren’t quite six weeks into the season but already are showing signs of panic at the top.

‘‘I really believe in my team right now,’’ Contreras said. ‘‘Yeah, we’re struggling right now. We’re finding solutions, we’re finding answers and we’re working on that.’’

A few hours later, he stood in front of the visitors’ dugout, leaning against the railing. The wind-chilled crowd held a long ovation. Contreras lifted his cap to them, tears in his eyes and a smile on his face.

The mix of boos Contreras predicted came in his first at-bat, and he seemed to enjoy them as much as the cheers. He singled up the middle and, as he reached first base, motioned with one hand for the fans to get louder. When the boo-birds acquiesced, he raised both arms and asked for more.

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