Tears started to fill Willson Contreras’ red-rimmed eyes.
For months the Chicago Cubs All-Star catcher had kept thoughts about his future at bay. Free agency, the trade deadline, all the uncertainties after 13 years with the only big-league organization he has known — those were things to worry about later.
He had maintained since spring training that he was focused on the present and taking things day-by-day, refusing to let his contract situation affect his performance or become a distraction in the clubhouse. Nothing seemed to faze Contreras until Monday night.
Loud cheers and a chant of “Willson!” down the left-field line greeted Contreras as he stepped into the batter’s box for his final at-bat in the eighth inning of the Cubs’ 3-2 win against the Pittsburgh Pirates. His night ended securing the strikeout for reliever Scott Effross’ first save. For a moment, as Contreras congratulated Effross near the mound and they went through the post-win handshake line, it felt like a typical win. “Go Cubs Go” blared for 37,342 fans celebrating the Cubs’ season-high fifth-straight victory.
But with a day game Tuesday before the team embarks on a seven-game trip that takes them through the Aug. 2 trade deadline, Monday likely would be Contreras’ final start behind the plate at Wrigley Field as a Cub.
“It’s been a tough couple days for me,” Contreras said afterward. “I’m trying to appreciate everything Wrigley Field is, thinking about all the memories that I have here since 2016. … This is probably my last homestand with the fans this year. It’s tough for me.
“I knew it would get to me at some point. I wish this day never came. But it’s a business. I know that. I respect that.”
Contreras paused as he started to choke up.
“And I love my team,” he continued. “I love my teammates most and I don’t want to get too attached because you never know what’s going to happen next week or even this week in San Francisco. It’s been a tough, tough couple of days for me.”
Hours earlier, outfielder Ian Happ addressed his own unknowns and future with the organization, perhaps soon joining the notable roster departures within the last three years.
“It’s crazy to think you could wake up one day and not be here,” Happ said. “It’s part of the game. It’s part of what we sign up to do.”
The way Contreras let his emotions show through his play is part of what made him beloved. Manager David Ross has witnessed Contreras’ evolution from his debut in 2016 through the bigger role he seized this year.
“He’s a special player. He’s a special man, and he’s done special things here,” Ross said. “And to watch him continue to get better, not just as a player but also as a teammate and as a leader, those qualities have come out.”
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Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo memorably did not play in the Cubs’ final home game before the trade deadline last year. Rizzo was dealt by the time the team left for the airport that day. Bryant had his helmet on and was preparing to pinch hit when the game ended, one final loss at Wrigley.
Ross was amused Monday at the idea of a conspiracy to keep the duo out of the lineup a day before the deadline, instead noting it was “super organic” because Rizzo had asked for the day off while Bryant had an off day.
There was no way Contreras would not be in the lineup Tuesday.
Contreras’ anticipated final chapter at Wrigley turned out to be another emotional day for one of the franchise’s most decorated catchers.
“The fans embraced me, and (showed) how much they love me,” he said after Tuesday’s 4-2 win over the Pirates. “If I have to walk away from this team, I’m going to walk away with my head up high. I know that I did everything I could to make this team better, from Day One of when i was called up in 2016, and I have a good relationship here.
“It’s hard. This is the only thing I know.”
Tribune columnist Paul Sullivan contributed.