Willson Contreras hopes Cubs fans realize they’ll always hold a special place in his heart.
“Even though I’m wearing a different uniform, that doesn’t mean that I don’t love them,” Contreras said while sitting in the visiting dugout at Wrigley Field on Monday.
That “different uniform” of course would be the Cardinals’, aka the Cubs’ bitter rivals. Contreras isn’t the first Cub make the move roughly 300-miles down I-55 from Wrigley Field to Busch Stadium. In recent years:
Jon Lester was traded to St. Louis from Washington at the 2021 deadline the year after he left Chicago
Dexter Fowler signed a five-year deal with the Cardinals right after winning the World Series with the Cubs in 2016
Ryan Theriot added some fuel to the rivalry by saying he was “finally on the right side” of it upon being traded to St. Louis by the Dodgers in 2010
But Contreras’ return is a bit different. Not only was he a long-time Cub, someone who moved up through the system after signing as an international free agent in 2009, but he’s a 2016 World Series champion. He’s someone who endeared himself to the fan base throughout his seven seasons on the North Side.
Signing a five-year, $87.5 million deal with the Cardinals this winter, then, was bad enough for some Cubs fans. Others took issue with some of the comments he made after he joined the team. Whatever the case, Contreras made his return to Chicago with legitimate questions about the reception he’d receive.
“I’m happy to be back,” Contreras said. “I’m happy to be here. I’m going to be happy to see the fans one more time, and I can’t wait to see how they welcome me back. I’m a little nervous. I won’t lie to you.”
Contreras predicted a 50-50 split of cheers and boos, and he wasn’t that far off.
If he knew he going to get a lot cheers with clearly audible boos mixed in, he certainly would’ve taken it. And if that wasn’t clear, him constantly egging on the fans throughout the Cubs’ 3-1 loss made it pretty obvious he enjoyed the mixed reaction.
As he stepped to the plate for the first time in the top of the second, he motioned for the fans to make some noise. After he knocked a base hit up the middle and reached first, he motioned with both hands in the air, as if to tell Cubs fans to bring it on. And then, when he ripped the eventual game-winning RBI double off the center-field wall in the seventh inning, he soaked in the boos raining down on him.
“It was spontaneous,” Contreras said, when asked if that was planned. “I found myself doing it. I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to keep doing it.’ But it was fun.”
Contreras has never shied away from being the villain to other fan bases. He usually manages to get under opponents’ skin with the things he does on the field. That’s not him showing disrespect but more so displaying that fiery, competitive passion that made Cubs fans love him.
Now that he’s on the other side of the rivalry, is it that shocking that he’d do something to make fans boo him?
“I mean, there were a couple people booing, and I loved it,” Contreras said. “I think that when you get booed, you’re doing something right.”
Of course, his former teammates and coaches don’t see him as a villain. Especially not the ones who were around for the majority of his Cubs career. Manager David Ross, who played his last season the same year Contreras debuted for the World Series team, praised his passion for winning. Coming from someone that not only was Contreras’ teammate his rookie year but also managed him for his last three seasons in Chicago, that means something.
“To be able to call him a World Series brother, I don’t have a ring [with the Cubs] without him,” Ross said. “So, I’m extremely thankful for him and his skillset and how he played when I was his manager. Guy gives it his all every time out. There’s no doubt about that.”
Like so many former Cubs who’ve returned to Wrigley Field, the Cubs put together a tribute video to thank him and to replay his best moments in Chicago.
Contreras was around for a few of those. His World Series teammates Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta are among the players who’ve come back in recent years. Contreras recognized how important those moments were for them. So, when it was finally his turn to have that moment, he embraced it.
“It’s really emotional when you get back to Wrigley Field,” he said, “because the energy here is something special, and the love from the fans is really special.”
Contreras maintains that there’s no ill will with the Cubs’ front office, even though they decided to move on despite him constantly stating his desire to stay. He even apologized to any fans who might’ve been hurt by some of those comments he made.
Anyone who wanted to boo him was able to on Monday. Now that it’s out of the way, maybe the fractured relationships (if there really are any) can start healing. He did help the Cubs end their 108-year championship drought, after all. Even though he’s playing the villain role on the other side of the rivalry now, fans can certainly still appreciate what he did in a Cubs uniform.
Contreras’ return comes at a time when his role on his new team is in flux. He’s no longer the Cardinals’ starting catcher, instead shifting to a primary designated hitter role for an indefinite period of time. It hasn’t been the easiest transition to a different team for Contreras, so this trip back to the place where he became a three-time All-Star might be coming at a good time.
After what — in some people’s eyes — was a messy exit from the organization, Contreras finally got the return trip out of the way. He got the tribute video, he got the cheers, he got the boos and he eventually got the last laugh. Moving forward, Cubs fans will likely continue to boo, since he’s the new villain on the Cardinals for them to hate.
But it seems as long as his former supporters know how much they mean to him, he’ll welcome whatever reaction he gets.
“I love them, and I have no hard feelings against them,” Contreras said. “I think it’s just part of life. I grew up there. I was 14 years there, and life put us in a different spot now, and we have to move on and keep going.”
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