This interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated. Read in Spanish here.
Cubs catcher Willson Contreras made his MLB debut last summer after seven years in the Cubs’ Dominican and minor league system. Since then, he has hit a home run in his first at-bat, caught a Cy Young finalist every five games and played in (and won) a World Series. He spoke with Marly Rivera about his first 12 months in the majors and how he’s adjusting to MLB’s written — and unwritten — rules.
You’re a player that plays with a lot of passion. Have you had problems with baseball’s “unwritten” rules?
There are rules that I forget. I don’t follow the rules all the time. But those are things that you learn with the more games you play. But I don’t really get too upset. I still play my own style of baseball, and if I make a mistake, the rules are there for me to learn.
When passion is interpreted as disrespect to the game, what would you like to tell people who think that way?
I would like to tell them that I don’t do things to disrespect the game or other teams; things sometimes get out of hand when you’re an aggressive player, a passionate player, with all this love we have for baseball. The desire to win here in the majors sometimes leads us to do things, or at least leads me to do things that I don’t mean to do, and many teams or many people take offense to it. Don’t be offended. Simply understand the adrenaline that one has when you give 100 percent to the game and give all of yourself to the game on a daily basis.
What is the main difference between the baseball played in Venezuela, in winter ball, and the one played here in the United States?
I don’t think it has the same rules. Winter ball is a bit rougher; there’s no slide rule at second base. Here you have that rule that if you go beyond the base, it’s an automatic double play. If you hit the shortstop or the second baseman, it’s an automatic double play. Those are things that I did not grow up putting into practice. I think I have been putting them into practice only since last year, and this year. But I think baseball must always be an aggressive sport. The only rule I like is the home-plate-collision rule, after Buster Posey broke his ankle. I think that’s the only rule where it applies having to play a little cleaner.
Does that Latino passion start to get lost when you have to conform to these “unwritten” rules?
Perhaps some of that Latin love [for baseball] is lost because you have to get used to all the rules and everything else. But we are Latinos playing major league baseball, in the major leagues in the United States, so one has to follow their rules. But if they put me in that sort of position. If they tell me, look, you have this one rule to slide at first, you have this other rule to slide into second; I’m not going to follow them. I won’t, because I don’t characterize myself for playing baseball like a child. I play baseball hard; I play baseball for grown men, without disrespecting any team. If I ever do something too aggressive, then I also take responsibility for my actions.
Do they talk to Latinos when they first come up to the majors about the style of baseball that is expected up here?
They always talk to you throughout the minor leagues, telling you ‘beware of aggressiveness,’ ‘watch out for this,’ ‘watch your gestures.’ But those are things that you learn also by watching players that have played here for a while. I watch Miguel Montero — he has spent 11 years in the majors, not because he has been fooling around here, but by doing things right. You also learn by watching the way other teams play, their style of play, the way they behave during the game, the way they do routine plays. You can learn by watching all those things.
What do you think of the whole ‘retaliation’ thing, as it happened with Manny Machado or José Bautista?
I don’t think what happened to Manny Machado was fair. I saw the replay — Manny Machado did not slide into second base meaning to do harm. He just brushed [Dustin] Pedroia. Pedroia fell on the ground and was taken out of the game; he got injured. Boston wanted to, I would not say seek revenge, but do what felt fair to them, to hit Manny. But to throw at him four, five times in a row, I think that got out of hand. With José Bautista, he has been doing that for several years, and the fact that he did it once again didn’t surprise anyone. It doesn’t surprise me; that’s the way he plays. And he can hit very long home runs, but, I have to say it, sometimes he goes a little overboard, at least [with] the bat flip.
I did it myself during the World Series, and I felt ashamed. I was embarrassed because I felt that I disrespected the fans. I disrespected the opposing team, the Cleveland Indians. I wrote a tweet where I said that wouldn’t happen again, that I would self-correct. These are things I keep learning. These are things you learn.
Tell me more about that moment in the World Series, a historic World Series for your team. What goes through a player’s mind when they make what you say was ‘a mistake’ with that bat flip? And why is it a mistake?
It was an exciting time, it was the World Series, but we were losing. Maybe if we were winning I wouldn’t have done anything. I wouldn’t have said anything because it would have been part of my excitement and us winning. But we were losing, and losing by a lot, so it was not well received. I talked to my dad, my mom, my agent, and it was my decision to send a tweet and apologize to fans from both teams, and my team mainly, because I know this is a team that plays the right way; we do things right. But that’s in the past, I have apologized and I keep on learning from my mistakes.
The NFL commissioner announced that touchdown-celebration rules would change, and even sent a list of celebrations that will be allowed by the league. Would you like that to happen in MLB — pitchers and batters to be allowed to celebrate in particular ways?
Yes, I would like that, because baseball is not an easy sport. If a pitcher has three men on base and no outs and gets the three outs without allowing a run, that’s something that needs to be celebrated. Or if a batter has three men on base and hits a grand slam or a batter in the bottom of the ninth inning hits one out of the ballpark for a walk-off, those are things that should be celebrated.
Inside the clubhouse, how do you create the culture necessary to be a winning team?
The main thing is respect. You have to have respect for each person in there, and you have to respect everyone’s space. We joke around all the time; we don’t have problems with anyone. The way I do it is I like to go around to each locker, talk to each person. If he’s not doing something, I will say hello. If they’re at the gym, I leave him alone because I know he’s working. The moment someone is alone I will come over and start talking. You have to be polite, cordial; maintaining that same winning spirit in the clubhouse is important.
Establishing camaraderie is not always easy. How do you work on it?
Sometimes we have team dinners, sometimes Jason Heyward, [Anthony] Rizzo, [Jon] Lester say, ‘Look, there’s a dinner at 8 p.m. at such and such restaurant,’ and we go there and hang out together. Or if we are in the dugout or in the clubhouse we are always joking around. We play PlayStation. We play basketball. Here in the clubhouse we have a lot of things to entertain us. But most of all, we play around, joking, yelling at each other. Those are the things that keep us happy and alert.
So the improvement they made to the clubhouse has been good for you?
Yes, now what you want is to get here earlier than you need to and never leave! There are pingpong tables, there are basketball courts, you can play PlayStation, watch movies, there are places to sleep. There’s everything here. You have to be very grateful to God and everyone at the Chicago Cubs, because of all the positive changes they have made here to this field.
Tell me a bit more about the things that Heyward and Lester have done, being veteran leaders in this team. How have they contributed to creating that camaraderie?
They let you be yourself; they let us play. As far as I know, they’re not the kind of players that set rules or say, ‘Look, rookie, do this.’ They are very open-minded players; they also see the respect you show them. Jason Heyward is very professional on and off the field. Jon Lester is a competitor every time he’s out there. You have to know how to guide him, because he wants to compete so much that sometimes that desire to compete and to win leads to frustration. But we can’t fall into frustration; we always have to plow ahead to win. John Lackey is another person who’s a competitor, a warrior out there. But after the game is over, everyone is the same they are back home, those people you get along with in the clubhouse.
Are you prouder because you have earned the respect of those veteran pitchers at such a young age?
Yes. I am proud of the respect I have earned. It is not easy to get here, midyear, and really try to get to know the players; getting to know their stuff. It’s not the same thing catching a starter during spring training and catching a starter in the regular season; things change completely, their stuff changes radically. I focused a lot on learning from my pitchers — what they like to do, what they don’t like to do, the rhythm they like to keep, what pitches they like in a certain situations. Those are the kinds of things that I have really focused on and thank God they have allowed me to get to where I am today.