CHICAGO -- Some 3 1/2 hours prior to his first game in eight seasons as a member of the hated opposition at Wrigley Field, Willson Contreras admitted that he was somewhat nervous about the reception he might get from fans who adored him in Cubs blue, but were understandably pulling against him now in Cardinals red.
Once Contreras got his taste of those boos on Monday night, it set off something inside of him, and he couldn't help but raise his arms into the damp and chilly air and invite even more vitriol from the fan base that cheered in 2016 when he helped to bring a World Series title to the Windy City.
Always known for his edgy, emotional style of play, Contreras came alive in his first game back at Wrigley Field with three of his hardest-hit balls of the season. After scoring the Cardinals' first run, driving in the second with a shot to the wall and thriving in the white-hot intensity of the spotlight, Contreras left his fingerprints all over the 3-1 victory over the Cubs.
“There were a couple of people booing me, and I just love that. When you get booed, that means you’re doing something right,” Contreras said of his hand motions daring fans to bring more boos in his direction. “The boos were kind of an extra boost I got there. At the same time, as I was doing [the hand gestures] I saw that my teammates really responded to it, so I decided to keep doing it.”
For Contreras, the two-hit, two-RBI night and the victory for St. Louis was a welcome reprieve from a trying few days where the Cardinals announced that they would be shifting him into more of a designated hitter role instead of being the catcher the team signed to a five-year, $87.5 million free-agent contract in December.
Coming into Monday, Cardinals pitchers had a 5.13 ERA in 201 2/3 innings when pitching to Contreras and a 3.77 ERA in 12 games and 105 innings to reserve catcher Andrew Knizner. The Cardinals chalked some of that up to the growing pains of being without nine-time Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina for the first time in two decades. Some of it, too, was Contreras trying to transition to a new team and a new pitching staff, while also dealing with the pitch timer and several teammates missing time in Spring Training because of the World Baseball Classic.
One of those WBC participants, Adam Wainwright, helped to calm Contreras’ anxiety about the early-season struggles with a heart-warming message to the catcher on Sunday in a meeting arranged by manager Oliver Marmol. Wainwright’s words of encouragement meant everything, Contreras said.
“The last couple of days, I’ve been having long days because of what happened, but [Wainwright] embraced me and when we talked, I was relieved,” said Contreras, whose sixth-inning double nearly left the park. “We kept talking, and I feel so much better. Now that we’re here in Chicago and we won today, it takes some weight off my shoulders. Now, I just want to keep it going.”
Miles Mikolas, who struck out seven hitters over his first four innings before encountering trouble in the fifth, said that Contreras is now officially a Cardinal after getting jeered by the Wrigley faithful.
“You’re not a Cardinal until you get booed and yelled at at Wrigley, so now he’s one of us,” Mikolas said. “They don’t really get vulgar here. It’s, ‘You stink! Your chain is fake! Your mustache is stupid!’” Mikolas said with a laugh. “They have every right to boo the opposing team, and they’re good at it here. It’s our job to silence them.”
Contreras didn’t exactly silence the fans, but he did revel in the intensity of the boos, especially after he hit a 103.3 mph single in the first, a 117.5 mph smash to shortstop in the fourth and the 108 mph shot off the wall in the sixth off Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman.
“Great at-bats by Willson there,” said Stroman, one of Contreras’ closest friends on the Cubs last season. “Obviously, he was a cornerstone of this franchise for a long time. I think the fans were thankful for everything he did for this organization.”
Through the years, Contreras looked on as former Cubs teammates Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo returned to Chicago, and they were cheered for their contributions to the first Cubs championship team in 108 years. As much as he wanted a similar ovation, the fiery competitor inside of him didn’t mind the split of cheers and boos from Chicago fans.
“I love the Cubs and I have no hard feelings toward them,” Contreras said. “I grew up there, but life put me in a different spot now and we have to move on.”