If this is goodbye, Contreras leaves Wrigley 'with my head up high'

July 26th, 2022

CHICAGO -- Willson Contreras waited before he stepped into the batter's box in the first inning on Tuesday afternoon. The Cubs' longtime catcher stood near the plate, bat in hand, allowing the growing cheers around Wrigley Field to envelop him.

As Contreras fought back tears one night earlier, he said he planned on soaking in every moment in what could be his final home game in a Cubs uniform. In a 4-2 win over the Pirates, he did just that throughout an emotional day on the North Side.

"It was just amazing," Contreras said. "I tried to enjoy it, enjoy it as much as I could, and take it all in."

The business side of baseball is at the forefront for fans right now, as the Aug. 2 Trade Deadline sits one week in the future. For the rebuilding Cubs, specifically, both of their All-Stars -- Contreras and outfielder Ian Happ -- are two of the biggest names on the open market. The Deadline will arrive while the Cubs are on a two-city swing through San Francisco and St. Louis.

Like Contreras, Happ spent time on Tuesday to enjoy the environment. A group of fans from the left-field bleachers signed a baseball for him, delivering it via members of the team's bullpen. Happ delivered a two-run double, scoring Contreras, to help raise that "W" flag for a sixth straight game.

After the win, Happ waited in the dugout for Contreras, who hugged each of his teammates as he worked his way through the postgame handshake line. When the catcher reached the dugout, Happ was waiting for him. They embraced for several seconds.

"I wanted to be out there for Willy," Happ said. "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. So 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."

Contreras agreed.

"It was a really incredible moment," Contreras said. "This is the only thing that I know. This is the only thing that he knows."

During that first inning, as the fans offered an ovation and continued to roar, Contreras hoisted his helmet high into the air and waved to his audience. He then shot the first pitch he saw from Pirates starter Bryse Wilson into center for a single.

Six years ago, Contreras controlled the emotions of his first Major League at-bat, sending the first pitch he saw in the big leagues out to right-center field for a home run. In the years since that moment, he has won a World Series, started three All-Star Games and grown into a leader behind the scenes.

"He's a big part of that championship," Cubs manager David Ross said, "and has been a really good player for a really long time. Three-time All-Star, a lot of accolades here, part of a lot of winning, a lot of playoff games. I think that's really cool.

"You all have your favorites that you grow up with when you're a baseball fan. And I'm sure Willson's a favorite for a lot of kids out there."

Plenty of Cubs fans called Javier Báez, Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo their favorites, too. A year ago, as Chicago's front office made it clear that the long-term vision was now the priority, those three core stars were part of a series of trades that netted a pile of prospects.

With extension talks seemingly stalled and free agency looming, Contreras is now in the same situation. And he has maintained a realistic outlook about what lies ahead.

"If the Cubs get a good package for me to make this team better, they're going to do it," Contreras said. "I'd be more than happy to help a different team to get to a World Series.

"If it doesn't happen, I'd be more than happy to stay here with my teammates and try to find a way to make everyone better and keep being a nice leader, even off the field."

If a trade did come to fruition, would Contreras consider re-signing as a free agent over the offseason?

"Yeah," he said without hesitation. "This is the team that I've been with for 14 years. Why not? This is the only team that I know. ... We'll see what happens."

Before his final at-bat in the seventh, Contreras received an even louder reaction from the crowd. This time, he allowed himself to smile and then raised a fist skyward in appreciation.

"I love how the fans embrace myself," he said. "That makes me feel good. It makes me feel that, if I have to walk away from this team, I can walk away with my head up high, because I know I did everything I could to make this team better from Day 1."