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As Willson Contreras stepped to the plate for his first at-bat in the Cubs’ 4-2 win over the Pirates on Tuesday, fans around Wrigley Field rose to their feet.
Signs with messages reading things like “Thank You Willson” were spread throughout the crowd. Jerseys featuring the name “Contreras” with the number “40” sitting right underneath it were worn by plenty of fans. When Contreras’ name was announced over the PA system, those who’d made it there for the 1:20 p.m. roared loudly for the Cubs’ seventh-year backstop (who, as it so happens, was in the lineup as the designated hitter).
Contreras stepped to the plate but then left the box for about 20 seconds as the ovation went on. In that time, he removed his helmet and tipped it to the crowd, and then composed himself before stepping back in the box and starting a first-inning, three-run rally with a first-pitch single.
“When I started hearing it in the first at-bat, it was amazing,” Contreras said. “I tried to enjoy it as much as I could and take it all in. I love how the fans embraced myself and how much they love me. That makes me feel good.”
“That one got me pretty good,” said Contreras’ long-time teammate, Ian Happ. “It’s an emotional day for a lot of us, but obviously, he’s been here a long, long time. He loves this place, and you could see that.”
Contreras stepped back in the box six innings later for what ended up being his final at-bat of the game.
Just like they did in the first inning, the crowd rose to their feet and gave him another massive round of applause. Contreras didn’t need long to compose himself this time around, and instead he looked back and pumped his fist.
Though he ended up striking out — not the ideal way to end it compared to the first-pitch home run in his first big-league at-bat back in 2016, the year he helped the Cubs end their 108-year World Series drought — that didn’t take away from the emotion of those moments Contreras got to share with the 30,978 fans in attendance.
“I think history creates that,” manager David Ross said. “Fans relate to him and winning and the championship club. If you watch baseball and you’re a Cubs fan, you’ve seen him catching behind the dish for a shit-ton of games. He’s an emotional player. The spotlight is on him a lot. He was a big part of that championship and been a really good player for a long time. Three-time All-Star, a lot of accolades here, been a part of a lot of winning, a lot of playoff games. I think that’s really cool that you all have your favorites you grow up with if you’re a baseball fan, and I’m sure Willson is a favorite for a lot of kids out there.”
As the DH on Tuesday, Contreras wasn’t behind the plate when Alfonso Rivas snagged a ground ball and stepped on first for the final out of the game. But he quickly rushed out to celebrate as his teammates jogged off the field, and the rest of those in the dugout took a step back and let Contreras be the first to greet them. Once he’d hugged every teammate coming his way, Contreras turned around and embraced his teammates and coaches lined up behind him.
When he stopped for a postgame interview, the remaining members of the crowd gifted him one more standing ovation. And in one last gesture of gratitude, Contreras removed the cap from his head and tipped it toward the fans, doing so in every direction to make sure they all knew how much he appreciated them.
“I have a lot of things in my head right now about the fans, but nothing but love,” Contreras said. “… I would like to thank all the fans, because the love and support they showed me from Day 1 is priceless, and they’re always going to keep living in my heart.”
Happ may not be universally loved on quite the same level as Contreras — in part because of his up-and-down career, in part because he wasn’t yet in the majors when the Cubs finally secured that elusive title — but he’s commanded a level of admiration from the fanbase that’s warranted for a player who earned his first All-Star nod this year.
That’s why, as his name continues to get floated around in various trade rumors, the series as a whole was going to be just as emotional for him as it was for Contreras.
“Trying to really enjoy the next two days here, no matter what. And we’ll see what happens,” Happ said Monday. “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 at this place. Coming to work here every day is special, and I just want to enjoy that as long as I can.”
As the team’s everyday left fielder since the 2021 trade deadline, Happ quickly formed a bond with the “Bleacher Bums” who show him love when he heads to his spot in the outfield. He wanted to go out there these last two days and enjoy what could be his last moments with that part of the crowd.
When he went out to warm up before the beginning of Tuesday’s contest, Happ took off his hat and held it to his chest as a salute to the fans in the left-field bleachers. Later on, right as the Cubs closed out the two-game sweep, Happ turned back around and made the same gesture, letting those in the crowd know how much they’ve meant to him.
And those fans returned the favor.
Happ said he received a ball, passed on to him by those in the Cubs’ bullpen, that was signed by “quite a few” of the fans who took up residence in that section of the bleachers.
That gesture validated every reason why this series was so emotional for Happ. From being drafted in 2015 to having a strong debut season in 2017 to beginning 2019 in the minors to struggling for most of 2021 to playing in his first All-Star Game last week, Happ’s Cubs journey has been a rollercoaster. But it’s also a journey he doesn’t want to come to a close.
Happ, though, has come to terms with the fact that Tuesday could very well be last time he calls Wrigley Field home, and that’s why he tried to prepare himself for what might’ve been his last goodbye. Still, all of that preparation could never have helped him fully brace himself for the emotions that this series brought with it.
“I don’t think you’re ever prepared, but like I said, I’m trying to soak it all in no matter what,” Happ said. “I’m just appreciative of the time and the people here. … They’re there every day no matter what, no matter the weather, April until now. They’re there every single day, and they care so much. That was really meaningful.”
At the start of the Cubs’ final home game before the trade deadline in 2021, their “Big Three” of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez were all within a day (and in Rizzo’s case, within hours) of being traded. But when the Cubs took the field that day, only Báez was in the lineup.
Despite chants from crowds yearning to see Rizzo and Bryant enter what ultimately was their last game at Wrigley Field as members of the Chicago Cubs, despite Bryant actually waiting on the top step of the dugout with a helmet on in the bottom of the ninth, neither ended up playing that day. And with that, fans didn’t get a true chance to say goodbye to the duo who’d come to be known collectively as “Bryzzo.”
The idea has been floated around that they didn’t play to ensure their health before the trades were finalized, but Ross insists that there wasn’t a conspiracy behind it. He said that “one of them had a day off, and the other one asked for the day off the day before, so that was super organic.” For good measure, he agreed that if a player asked him to play on a specific day, he would oblige.
So, for those worried the same thing would happen to Contreras and Happ, he wanted to make it clear that his only focus is on putting together a lineup that can help the team win.
“I know it’s on your guys’ radar every single moment, every single day. It’s not on mine at all,” Ross said before the series opener. “I’m committed to winning today, and then tomorrow, we’re going to wake up and try to win tomorrow.”
Sure enough, both Contreras and Happ were in the starting lineup Tuesday, batting second and fourth, respectively. Cubs fans, then, got to have those moments that they didn’t get to have with Rizzo and Bryant. And as it turns out, Contreras and Happ got to finish things off with a moment all to themselves.
When Contreras went out to greet his teammates as they came off the field, Happ was the first one there, and they shared a quick embrace. Then, once Contreras wrapped up his postgame interview, he walked into the dugout and found one teammate remaining.
That would be Happ, who stuck around to soak things in for perhaps the last time in the home dugout at Wrigley. And as the two of them crossed paths, they were able to create what’s sure to be a lasting memory.
“I came downstairs, and Happ was waiting for me,” Contreras said. “He gave me a nice hug. It was a really cool moment for both [of us].
“This is the only thing that I know. This is the only thing that Ian knows. We just tried to take it all in.”
Said Happ: “I wanted to be out there for Willy. I was going to stay out there and take it in. There’s nothing quite like a ‘W’ at Wrigley Field after that song plays and you see the ‘W’ flags around and people stay and enjoy it. I wanted to be out there and take that in, but Willson, we’ve played together for a long time. Being able to be out there for him and give him a hug, those are special moments that you don’t really forget.”
As it stands right now, both Contreras and Happ are still Cubs.
Despite the strong possibility the two of them are gone by next Tuesday’s trade deadline, no deals have been made. However, they both know they may have just played their last home series on the North Side, and they’ve maintained positive perspectives in knowing they can’t control what happens over the next six days.
Happ said he’s not convinced that Tuesday marked his last home game as a Cub, but he still made sure to cherish it because “I would’ve regretted it if I didn’t take it in that way.”
In the case they are both playing for potential playoff clubs come Aug. 3, there’s a part of each of them that can find excitement in doing so. Happ called any chance to play for a contender “exhilarating.” Contreras said he’d be “more than happy to help a different team get to the World Series.”
And even then, a return to the Cubs in the future isn’t out of the question for either of them.
Contreras is set to be a free agent this offseason, and he would certainly listen if Jed Hoyer and Co. wanted to bring him back for 2023.
“I mean, this is the team that I’ve been [with] for 14 years,” Contreras said when asked if he’d consider returning to Chicago. “Why not?”
As for Happ, he won’t hit free agency until after next season, but considering he’s repeatedly stated his love for playing at Wrigley Field, perhaps he’d be open to coming back, too.
Though their futures could change in a hurry over the next few days, Contreras and Happ can still call themselves Chicago Cubs for the time being. And even if the names on the front of their jerseys say something different next week (as expected), they take solace in the fact that they were part of arguably the greatest era of Cubs baseball.
“If I have to walk away from this team,” Contreras said, “I’m going to walk away with my head up high, because I know that I did everything I could to make this team better from Day 1 when I got called up in 2016.”
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