By Rob Rains
Willson Contreras officially became a Cardinal on Friday, 96 days after he envisioned it happening.
That moment came on Sept. 4 as the Cardinals played the Cubs at Busch Stadium. Contreras was not in the lineup for the Cubs, so he had a good seat in the dugout when Albert Pujols broke up a scoreless tie with an eighth-inning home run, the 695th of his career.
Knowing he was about a month away from becoming a free agent, Contreras took in everything that followed – the reaction of Pujols and his teammates, the reaction of the fans – and he said Fridaythat was the moment he knew he wanted to play for the Cardinals.
“I was just looking around at the ballpark and the fan base and the team, how the guys were playing against us, and I said to myself, ‘I would like to be a part of something like that,’ a team that was always looking to win,” Contreras said during his introductory press conference at Busch Stadium.
“I was looking across (at the Cardinals’ dugout) to see how they were together and how unique the team was. It really impacted me. … I put myself behind the plate for the St. Louis Cardinals for the first time that day and I really enjoyed the feeling.
“I made the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Manager Oli Marmol had heard the story before, 11 days ago, on Nov. 30, when he and John Mozeliak traveled to meet with Contreras in Orlando, Fla.
They had questions for Contreras, especially wanting to gauge his reaction to being the one to follow Yadier Molina as the catcher in St. Louis.
Both Marmol and Mozeliak, the team’s president of baseball operations, knew that was a challenge some players would not want. They could tell Contreras was ready to embrace it.
“It was important to sit across from him for an hour and dive into some of the questions we were able to dive into,” Marmol said. “I left that meeting knowing three things: he cares about winning, building relationships with people around him and mentoring guys that are younger than him.
“That’s a really good fit for what we have going here. … He clearly communicated that there was one place he wanted to play, and it was here.”
Contreras knew it was important for Marmol and Mozeliak to get to know him, well aware of the fact that what opponents often thought about him was different than if you were on his team – and he wanted to convince them about that.
“When you play against me you might not get the best perception of myself because I play for you not to like me,” Contreras said. “When you are on my team, on my side, I told those guys, ‘You will love me because I do everything I could for my team and win the battle every single day.’
“We had a really nice conversation. We had a connection, and it was about winning; what can I do to help the team win. That was the most important thing for me.”
Contreras, who agreed to a five-year contract, knows the best way he can honor and respect Molina is by making the catcher transition a seamless one.
“He’s the best catcher of the last two decades, a future Hall of Famer, first ballot,” Contreras said. “He set the bar really high. He was my idol, I won’t lie. It’s an honor to succeed a Hall of Famer behind the plate. It’s a big responsibility which I take. I know every time I step on the field I will do my 110 percent to win that day.
“I learned a lot from him by watching. I have asked him questions throughout the years. He is an example for the future.”
Part of Contreras’ reseach into the Cardinals included talking to his former teammate with the Cubs, Jose Quintana, whom the Cardinals acquired in a deal with Pittsburgh at the trading deadline.
“I asked him about how everything was here,” Contreras said. “He said everything was organized. That was something I was looking forward to. He said it was a family, the chemistry that was there.
“That was what impacted me the most. He said, ‘You would like it here.’ That’s when I started having thoughts about playing for the Cardinals. We had a really good conversation and he helped me a lot.”
Contreras already has started to have conversations with the pitchers he will begin catching in spring training, saying he already has heard from Adam Wainwright and Jack Flaherty, among others.
He will soon begin studying video of the Cardinals’ staff but he also his own knowledge from standing in the batter’s box facing them over the years. Contreras has a combined 99 plate appearances against the projected rotation for 2023, and a total of 166 career plate appearances against pitchers expected to be on the staff.
“Starting early in spring training is going to help me a lot,” he said. “It’s going to be good to get to know everybody. I’m here for them. Those pitchers are going to be my best friends.”
Even though Contreras is expected to miss some time in spring training to go catch for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic, Marmol is confident Contreras will know what he needs to know about his new pitchers well in advance of the start of the regular season.
“He will lock into all of that here shortly,” Marmol said about studying the pitchers on film. “He will be able to know them before he actually sees them. There’s plenty of tools to put in front of him for him to familiarize himself with them before we get to Jupiter.
“We’ll make sure he’s ready to go.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains