Column: Willson Contreras takes one last look at Chicago Cubs fans on emotional day: 'I will always carry you in my heart'

Players come and go at Wrigley Field, and some of the lucky ones get the send-off they deserve.

Such was the case Tuesday for Willson Contreras at the last home game for Chicago Cubs catcher before the August 2 trade deadline.

While the Cubs haven’t said outright that their most popular player would be traded, everyone in the crowd of 30,978 seemed to understand that this would be the end of it.

Contreras received a long standing ovation before his first at-bat, pausing for a moment to wave his helmet, then singled to center on the first pitch. He got another O on his feet before his final at-bat in the seventh, and he raised his fist before striking out to end the inning.

After the Cubs beat the Pirates 4-2 for the sixth straight time, Contreras was the last player to leave the field and received bear hugs from teammates Kyle Hendricks, Jason Heyward and Ian Happ, while manager David Ross hugged him and picked him up. the ground like a barrel of beer.

After one last look and a final wave from Cubs fans, Contreras was gone.

The display of love, he said, was “incredible” and something he would never forget.

“It makes me feel like if I have to walk away from this team, I’m going to walk away with my head held high,” he said. “I know I did everything I could to make this team better from day one when they called me up in 2016.”

Not every departing Cubs star gets the chance to say goodbye the way Contreras did on a beautiful afternoon at the corner of Clark and Addison streets.

Sure, Ernie Banks received a standing ovation before a crowd of 18,505 at Wrigley before his first at-bat, an infield hit, in what would be his last game on Sept. 26, 1971. But most walk away without the fanfare

Sammy Sosa left his team at the start of the final game of 2004 and was traded to the Baltimore Orioles during the offseason, never to return to the stadium he once owned. Due to the pandemic, Jon Lester’s last game in a Cubs uniform was in front of an empty stadium during the 2020 postseason. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant weren’t in the lineup for their final game at Wrigley last July, and Rizzo took the day off, a decision he will likely regret.

But Contreras’ likely departure has been talked about for months, and at this point it would be a complete shock if he’s still a Cub after Aug. 2. He hasn’t received an extension offer, but he said Tuesday that if he gets it in the next week he would definitely “look at it.”

“The hope is there,” Contreras said of continuing to be a Cub. “But at the end of the day, they are going to make a move, they are going to do it. I don’t want to think too much (about the possibility of) staying here, because right now I’m 70/30.”

As he was talking about his future, someone’s baby started crying in the clubhouse, lightening the mood.

Contreras hasn’t ruled out returning next year if he is traded, though that, too, seems like a long shot. Either way, he handled the lame duck state well all season, though his emotions boiled over in the final 24 hours.

“I realized (Monday) that I was distracted in the game,” Ross said before Tuesday’s game. “There are definitely thoughts on his mind. It would be unnatural not to be there for him. I don’t think any of us really know what’s going to happen, what the future holds. … He is an emotional guy. He wears it on his sleeve.

Several other Cubs may have also played their last game at Wrigley, a day Keegan Thompson pitched seven strong innings to earn the win. Ian Happ’s status is also in doubt, and the veteran outfielder was touched by a nod from fans in the left-field stands, who autographed a ball for him.

“They are there every day no matter what, no matter what the weather, from April to now, and they care a lot,” Happ said. “That was really significant.”

But even Happ knew this day belonged to Contreras, who began his long tenure with the organization in 2009. From the first-pitch home run he saw in 2016 to his frequent fights with the Milwaukee Brewers, Contreras’ career in the Cubs had been anything but boring. .

Many have forgotten that he received little playing time in his first month with the Cubs, playing behind Miguel Montero and Ross, who was Jon Lester’s catcher. The idea when Contreras was called up from Triple-A Iowa in June 2016 was that he would get a brief look and return when the rosters expanded in September.

“That was the floor,” then-team president Theo Epstein said. “Bring him in as a third receiver, get his feet wet and see how he goes, knowing we can easily send him down. But we were always transparent about leaving open the possibility that he could take off and get going. And he certainly has, which is great.

“But he has loved himself, no pun intended, in this position. Obviously, he’s positioning himself to take real responsibility and help the team win. So he has earned a place in the team.”

Though touted as the catcher of the future, Contreras still had to wait his turn. Former manager Joe Maddon didn’t want to split Lester and Ross, saying Contreras would have to learn the trade from him by playing part time.

“He’s young, he’s learning,” Maddon said in July. “You keep him fresh mentally and physically, and he’s going to look like that all year. You don’t want to put too much on his plate at this point. I’ve been through that before too, where the new kid on the block, everyone wants a new flavor. And all of a sudden, the flavor can lose some of its edge if you expose it too often.

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“So let him play. Let it be Willson. That he is 24 years old. He is going to be here for many years and he is going to be really good.”

Maddon, who was so close to Contreras that some called the wide receiver “Joe’s son,” helped build the rookie’s confidence. After Contreras posted a 1.004 OPS in September, it was clear he was already the best of the three receivers.

Ross’s memories of Contreras’ rookie season were of a boy who “smiled a lot, fit in very easily, showing the absolute cannon he had.” And, of course, the first-pitch home run he saw against the Pirates.

“He has a gift for the moment,” Ross said. “He wants that.”

Ross retired after the Cubs won the 2016 World Series, Montero was released during the summer of 2017 and Contreras made the first of his three All-Star appearances in 2018. While he was always beloved, it wasn’t until Rizzo, Bryant, and Javier Báez shared out that Contreras became the most popular player on the team.

That is why the probable way out has been so difficult to understand. Contreras loves the Cubs. The Cubs love him. But it won’t matter in the end.

“I have a lot of things on my mind right now about the fans,” he said Tuesday. But it is nothing but love. … The love and support they showed me from day one was priceless. I will always carry them in my heart.”

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