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At the major league level, baseball isn’t just a game anymore. It’s a business.
And if anybody knows how tough the business side of it can be, it’s the Cubs.
At this time last year, when they were below .500 and probably not looking at a playoff push over the last two months of the season, they sold off most of their trade chips. Those chips included players like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez, who were World Series champions but also in the last year of their contracts, and who the front office ended up trading at the deadline. As much as they contributed to bringing that long-awaited World Series title back to the North Side, Jed Hoyer and Co. didn’t let sentimentality get in the way of doing what they thought would be better for the organization in the long run.
A year later, nothing has changed. By next Tuesday, the Cubs are expected to have traded away at least a few players with enough value to bring back something worthwhile in return. A number of the veterans they brought in this past offseason were seen as players the Cubs would try to flip at the deadline. In addition, Cubs fans may have to get ready to say goodbye to a couple of players they’ve grown attached to as they watched them become All-Stars.
Of course, those two players would be Willson Contreras and Ian Happ.
Both have only ever been in the Cubs organization since becoming professional baseball players. Both grew up in the Cubs organization. Both have stated they want to be Cubs for life in the past. But at the same time, both understand the simple fact that, yes, Major League Baseball is a business.
“Knowing everything that is happening around, I knew it would get to me at some point,” Contreras said following the Cubs’ 3-2 win over the Pirates. “I wish this day never came, but it’s about business. I understand that. I respect that.”
“It’s a weird thing we sign up for sometimes,” Happ said before the opener of the two-game set. “It’s crazy to think that you could wake up one day and not be here, but it’s part of the game. It’s part of what we signed up to do. I think everybody understands that and has been through it at different points.”
Just because they signed up for it, that doesn’t make it any tougher to stomach the idea that these two games against the Pirates could be the last time either of them play at home in a Cubs uniform. Just because they both watched and learned from what their trio of teammates went through last year, that doesn’t mean they’re fully prepared to handle the emotions that come with potentially saying goodbye to the only home they’ve ever had in the big leagues.
That much was clear when Contreras talked postgame Monday.
Contreras, who signed with the Cubs as a 17-year-old out of Venezuela in 2009, got emotional when talking about this last series at Wrigley before the deadline. Though nothing is set in stone, like his teammates last season, Contreras is in his last year of club control and can hit free agency this offseason. If the Cubs follow the same pattern as 2021, Contreras is all but gone.
So, as he took the field on Monday, he tried to look around and think about the memories he’s made at Wrigley. When he came up in the bottom of the eighth for what could be the last plate appearance he ever has at this park in this uniform (if, for some reason, he isn’t in the lineup Tuesday), the fans gave him a standing ovation, and he was nothing but appreciative of that. If this is his last home series as a Cub, it’s already been an emotional one.
“I’m trying just to appreciate everything that Wrigley Field is and thinking about all the memories that I have here since [debuting in] 2016, from [signing in] 2009 to now,” said Contreras, who found it tougher to hold back tears the longer he spoke. “This is probably my — [or] probably not, I don’t know — but probably my last homestand with the fans this year.
“It’s tough. It’s really tough.”
The same goes for Happ, who was the last top-10 pick by the Cubs in 2015, before the club went on a run of winning it hadn’t experienced in the past, and before they went into rebuilding mode and picked in the top-10 for the first time in seven years last week.
As the draft unfolded and the Cubs selected Cade Horton seventh overall, Happ thought back to his own draft night. He reminisced on the feeling of joining the organization right before it went on that unexpected NLCS run in 2015, of watching the big-league club end its 108-year World Series drought a year later, of wanting to one day be a part of the next championship team.
The Cubs aren’t in that position right now, but he would still rather help them get back to that level than help some other team win instead. Happ knows he can’t control what the front office does with him over the next week, which makes it even more important to him that he soaks in what could be his last moments in front of his home crowd wearing a Cubs jersey.
“Trying to really enjoy the next two days here no matter what, and we’ll see what happens,” Happ said. “There’s nothing that you can control as a player. I’ve said it, and I’ll keep saying it: I love playing here in front of these fans, this place. Coming to work here every day is special, and I just want to enjoy that as long as I can.”
Contreras and Happ aren’t in exactly same position. While Contreras is set to be a free agent this offseason, Happ still has another year of club control, which in theory would give him a better shot at making it through the deadline without being dealt.
Where they are on equal footing, however, is in the fact that neither has had those discussions about extending their future with the Cubs. Contreras has said numerous times that the team hasn’t engaged him in extension talks so far this season. Happ reiterated Monday that those conversations haven’t been had with his group at this point, either. In that sense, there’s certainly a scenario where neither of them is still on the roster when the Cubs return to Chicago next weekend for a series against the Marlins.
Again, they both know they can’t control what happens to them between now and 5 p.m. CT on Aug. 2. And as Happ said Monday, seeing former teammates like Rizzo (Yankees), Bryant (Rockies), Báez (Tigers) and even Kyle Schwarber (Phillies) still playing at this level reminds them that “you’re going to be all right. You’ll wake up the next day, and you’ll be playing still.”
But there is still only one ballpark at which either of them really wants to play 81 times a year.
“I don’t want my Cubs journey to end,” Happ said. “I don’t want to stop putting the uniform on and come in here every day.”
So, it makes sense why the duo has decided to take in the moments while they still can. If they do make it through the deadline without being traded, they’ll have plenty more memories to make on the North Side. If they don’t, well, they’ll certainly make sure they cherish the moments they have left.
“I would encourage everybody to do that in baseball, whether you’re a rookie or you’re a veteran,” manager David Ross said. “The things that I was able to make sure I was able to take in on the back end of my career before I retired was moments like you’re talking about: look around, look at the fans, appreciate the environment, appreciate the fans on their feet in a 3-2 count on a Wednesday in the bottom of the eighth.
“It doesn’t happen everywhere. This is a special place.”
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