We all saw the play last night and we've all been talking about it since. The Cubs won the game in large part because of that seemingly unquenchable fire that burns inside of Willson Contreras-- or outside of him, if you took Joe Maddon's words literally yesterday,
#Cubs Maddon on Contreras "He plays with his hair on fire"
— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) May 4, 2017
We all know which play Maddon was referring to. It was that fearless, all out break for the plate that ended up being the difference in the Cubs one run win. That passionate play certainly was not surprising to most of us. It wasn't anything we haven't seen before. It was pure Willson Contreras. It's who he has always been.
But there was another play that I remember from that game, one that maybe you've already forgotten, That's a good thing, though. But more on that later. To truly appreciate that last important play -- that other one you may have missed, we have to go back and look back on the journey from the very beginning...
I've told this story in the past, back when I was trying to alert everyone to a kid named Willson Contreras. Back before he was even a prospect. Back when Contreras as a catcher was still in the experimental phase.
The wife and I used to visit Arizona often before we lived here. We enjoy the sunny weather and we have family in the area. There is also baseball practically all year round. Those are ultimately the reasons we decided to move here.
During one such visit in 2012 we came out to see instructional league play, then at Fitch Park. I wasn't the expert or the regular visitor I am now. We showed up on a date in which there was no game and so we meandered around the grounds looking for something interesting to watch.
It didn't take us long to find it.
We wandered over to where the catchers were doing drills. In this particular instance, they were fielding bunts and then responding to last second commands on which base to throw to. So a coach would roll out a "bunt" and then yell, "two, two, two!" Or "three, three, three!!" Or...well, you get the picture.
In the world of baseball such drills are common and mundane. They are part of the necessary grind of becoming a good, fundamentally sound baseball player. However, as much as the instructors try, it is nearly impossible to simulate game speed or adrenaline.
Unless you happen to be Willson Contreras, that is.
Today I can tell each catcher by their build, the way they personalize their attire (glove, wristbands, shoes, socks, etc,), mechanics, even their gait and mannerisms. Of course now, they also have their names on the back of their jerseys so it no longer much of a challenge. Back then, however, it was rather anonymous. I was not yet a regular and there was no easy way to identify each catcher. They all wore masks, they were of roughly the same build, and I didn't even know Arizona Phil well enough then to pick his brain on who's who.
Yet, there was one catcher who still stood out. He exploded from his crouch and jumped out of the chute as if someone lit a fire under him. He threw rockets to each base as if there was an imaginary runner out there taunting him, daring the young catcher to throw him out. If these were just drills, somebody forgot to tell this kid.
I stood there so transfixed and waiting for his turn to come up again that I hadn't noticed the coach who was standing next to me for who knows how long. After his next turn came up and another cat-like pounce on the bunt and a bullet to second base, I turned to the coach and asked,
"Who is that guy?"
(Had I had my wits about me, I would have asked, "Who was that masked man?", but I digress.)
Before uttering his response, the coach just smiled, as if acknowledging that he was seeing exactly what I was seeing and perhaps somewhat pleased that there was someone else there to appreciate it with him.
"Willson Contreras", he said.
I'd like to tell you I dropped a pearl of my amateur baseball scouting wisdom on this coach but all that came out was a half-whispered, "Wow".
You can't make too much of such drills to evaluate anyone anyway and if I had, I might have noticed that the arm action was too long or maybe something about his footwork...but really none of that mattered because those are the kinds of things that can be fixed. What mattered was the things that could not be taught, that incredible athleticism and unbridled passion with which he played on rep after rep after rep. The energy seemed boundless.
I did make a mental note of it all and as luck should have it, Contreras would be following us back to Chicago. The Cubs had just signed on to have the Kane County Cougars as their affiliate. We bought season tickets and attended every game we could. There were quite a few future major league ballplayers on that team: Albert Almora, Jeimer Candelario, Dan Vogelbach, Marco Hernandez, Rob Zastryzny, Felix Pena, Andrew MccKirahan, and, of course, Willson Contreras.
Contreras still managed to find ways to stand out, though not always for the right reasons. I remember him walking halfway out to the pitcher's mound to light shortstop Marco Hernandez up for his lack of effort on a short-hop throw to second -- on a practice throw during the warm-ups between innings.
There was also the time when he blew up Twins prospect Niko Goodrum on a play at the plate. Goodrum was a big kid at 6'3" 200 lbs. with good speed, so he came around 3rd base with a whole lot of momentum. That momentum was stopped in an instant as Contreras, just looking to hold his ground and hold on to the baseball, braced himself as Goodrum crashed face first into those rock solid forearms. Goodrum collapsed to the ground in a heap and had to be revived with smelling salts.
Contreras probably didn't make a lot of friends on the other teams back then but that was not really his concern. Some even accused him of being a dirty player, but that's just not who he was. You were just as likely to find Contreras having fun or joking around before and after the game. Some of our favorite early photos was of Contreras singing and dancing to one of his favorite songs by the bullpen on one of his off days.
But on the field was different. He just played the game with such competitive fire, such passion to win not just the game, but to come out on top on every single play. My friend Kris Contreras (no relation) who has gotten to know Willson well, said that he took every runner, every attempt to advance a base, personally.
That wasn't always a good thing, however. Like his teammate then and now, Albert Almora, Contreras didn't believe there was a play he could not make. The result was a lot of ill-advised throws and quite a few unforced, unnecessary errors.
In the words of his manger Mark Johnson from an interview two years ago, Contreras was sometimes "too passionate". Not that you can ever have too much passion, but as Johnson went on to explain, Contreras had to learn when there was a play to be made and when it was best to maybe stick that ball in your pocket and learn to live for another play.
And so when Willson Contreras made that daring dash to the plate to score an all important run last night, it was exciting but not surprising to anyone who has followed him closely. It was bold. It was competitive. It was passionate. It was Willson Contreras.
But lost in all the excitement you may have failed to notice another play. There was a pitch that bounced to the plate in the 9th with a runner on first and Contreras managed to block it enough to where it traveled just a short distance away from him. He pounced on it quickly but the runner, Freddy Galvis, has pretty good speed and got himself a good jump.
Contreras put the ball in his pocket and conceded the base rather than risk a throw on a play that could not be made. The runner ended up being stranded there and the Cubs won the game.
You can be excused if you forgot about that little play. In fact, it's better that you did. That's the kind of play that used to draw Contreras the wrong kind of attention. So because he did not try to make that play in the 9th, we all remember what we should be remembering -- that great baserunning play he did make in the 6th.
And while that passion, that desire to win and make plays, still burns inside as it always has, it was a play Contreras chose not to make that may have been equally important for him and the Cubs.
That is Willson Contreras.
And he has come a long way since those days at Fitch Park and Kane County.
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