“It’s so much quicker that way!” he said, out of breath but in his element.
This is Contreras’ happy place, even when he’s subjecting himself to masochistic mad dashes from Point A to Point B. And Contreras has had a lot to be happy about this spring. He’s abusing baseballs in Cactus League play. On Thursday, it was a ground-rule double on a well-struck liner that unreachably sailed over the head and outstretched arms of left fielder David Dahl. He’s 16 at-bats into the exhibition season, and he’s got a pair of doubles and a pair of homers -- affirmation of the winter work he put in to load up earlier in his swing to put him in a better position to catch up with fastballs.
But when Contreras pulls his car out of the Cubs’ complex, the not-so-happy reality of what’s going on back in his homeland hits him.
“It’s really tough,” he said. “When I’m here, I’m happy. I’m not overthinking. But once I get out of the ballpark, everything that comes to my mind is Venezuela and my family still living there. It’s a little dangerous right now. My family is in a good place, they’re safe. But they don’t have the freedom you have in America.”
Chaos has enveloped Venezuela, where president Nicolas Maduro, under whom the country has suffered an eradication of the social infrastructure, has remained in power after a widely disputed election. National assembly leader Juan Guaido is being recognized by the United States and other countries as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
Contreras is selling T-shirts that read “Freedom for Venezuela," with profits going to a Venezuelan foundation providing food and medicine to those affected by the political unrest. On Thursday morning, a fresh batch of those shirts was distributed throughout the Cubs’ clubhouse, with many players wearing them to support their teammate in this time of turmoil.
“It’s got to be scary, to be honest,” said reliever Brian Duensing, donning the shirt. “I’ve asked him to make sure his family is all right down there. He says everything is good. But I can’t imagine having to leave the country to go to work and leaving your family in a situation that is as unsettling as it is down there right now. If we can show him support by wearing a T-shirt, it’s pretty simple.”
Contreras is a major figure in this Cubs’ lineup in 2019. His sharp decline in production from 2017, when he slashed .276/.356/.499 with 21 homers and 21 doubles, to 2018, when he slashed .249/.339/.390 with 10 homers and 27 doubles, contributed to the overall sag of the offense that ultimately spoiled a 95-win season. If what we’re seeing this spring is real and applies to the regular season, that changes the look of the lineup considerably.
But with so much unrest back home, baseball is rightfully secondary in Contreras’ mind right now. And perhaps that, as much as the slight mechanical change, has contributed to the early clout he has displayed in this non-binding but confidence-building environment.
Contreras acknowledged as much.
“That’s kind of training my mind,” he said. “We have tough times in Venezuela. If you can separate those problems from the ballpark, now you’re here and you’re just relaxed. You’re doing what you’re supposed to do. This is the talent that God gave me, so I have to enjoy it and do it every day.”