CINCINNATI -- Before the full question could even be asked recently about what he observed through the years while watching the traditionally straightlaced, all-business, and sometimes painfully boring Cardinals, Willson Contreras snorted twice before ultimately bursting into laughter.
It’s no secret that the Cardinals are almost universally hated among their NL Central rivals; one, because they have been the dominant force in the division for decades and two, because their players can sometimes come off as a bit, ummm, robotic, while adhering to the oft mocked, “Cardinal Way.”
Contreras, as Cardinals fans have quickly learned, is a highly emotional player, and his feelings often pour out of him like lava spewing from a volcano. He also plays the game with a distinct edge -- much the way franchise fixture Yadier Molina did for 19 seasons before retiring -- and the Cards' new backstop has no problem getting under the skin of the opposition, be that the other team or the road fans who boo his antics from the stands.
This season, Contreras has worked to fit in with the usually staid Cardinals while also remaining true to his personality as a player who uses his emotions to fuel his game. What he witnessed from the Cardinals previously while playing for the Cubs has changed a bit with his entrance into the fray.
“It was very different watching from the opposite dugout,” said Contreras, who won a World Series and became a three-time All-Star starter during his seven seasons with the Cubs. “[The Cardinals of 2022] were all right because they all came together, but this year is kind of different because of myself. I mean, I’m all different and when I do something good, I try to pass it around and put good energy out there. I play with my emotions, and I play with my [hair] on fire -- that’s not a secret and I think that’s something that makes me better.”
That likely played a role in making Contreras a better catcher following a rough start with his new club. He took the fall for an underachieving pitching staff when he agreed to a one-week respite from catching earlier this month. Since returning, he’s 6-1 in his starts behind the plate with the only loss coming on Wednesday night, when Steven Matz was shelled by Cincinnati.
How he handled that demotion -- without pouting, without spouting off and without letting it affect his overall demeanor -- spoke loudly to a Cardinals club that signed him to a five-year, $87.5 million contract last December.
“He was unbelievable,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol raved. “You’re talking about an extremely humble dude, who took everything in stride and saw [his catching removal] as an opportunity. It wasn’t always ideal, but one thing he did was he communicated well. It was really impressive. I couldn’t be more proud of the way he handled it.”
In some ways, Contreras’ emotion could be credited for helping the Cardinals shake their early-season doldrums. When he was booed upon his return to Wrigley Field, Contreras raised his hands in the air following a hit as if to tell the fans to crank up the heat even hotter. In Boston, he totally unnerved Kenley Jansen to the point that the veteran closer was called for two auto balls because he came set before the catcher was fully in the box. And last week against the Dodgers, he bolted out of the dugout for only the second curtain call of his career when he became the first catcher in Cardinals history to hit two three-run home runs in a game, per MLB research.
“He brings energy, excitement, adrenaline and ferocity,” Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright said. “Great person to have in there, in the clubhouse and the dugout.”
Long ago, Contreras said the Cubs tried to get him to tone down his antics and bottle up his emotions -- and it had a major effect on his play. It is a touchy subject, and one he doesn’t want to broach even as he tries to fit in with a Cardinals squad that has traditionally shied away from props and antics.
“Oh my God, I have a long answer about that,” said Contreras, whose emotions also can sometimes backfire on him as he limped out of Wednesday’s game in a 0-for-21 skid. “I had a lot of people on my first team that had me have meeting after meeting after meeting, trying to take my emotions away. I tried once and I wasn’t good. I was playing like crap. So, I talked to the [former] president of the Chicago Cubs, Theo Epstein, and said, ‘Hey, that’s not me. Let me play like I do. I’ll be myself out there.’
“When it comes to people telling me to quit my emotions or take it away, that’s a no for me,” he added. “Don’t go there because that’s one of the things that makes me good.”