Cubs

Shining on playoff stage, Willson Contreras a billboard for The Cubs Way

Shining on playoff stage, Willson Contreras a billboard for The Cubs Way

SAN FRANCISCO — Holding two aluminum Budweiser bottles in his hands, Willson Contreras walked up to Theo Epstein and poured beer all over the Cubs president’s head in the middle of a TV interview.

Uh, yeah, Contreras acts like he belongs in The Show, with a big smile and Oakley goggles perched atop his head. That raucous scene from inside AT&T Park’s visiting clubhouse late Tuesday night on the West Coast showed how this team responds to all the noise about curses, panic and the indestructible nature of the San Francisco Giants in an even year.

The Cubs had just staged an epic comeback, winning a National League Division Series with a ninth-inning rally that saw them wipe out a three-run deficit — and the dreaded possibility of facing Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner in Game 5 — by scoring four runs against five different Giant relievers.

Contreras delivered the game-tying, two-run, pinch-hit single in that 6-5 victory, driving the pitch from lefty Will Smith past diving second baseman Joe Panik into center field. Contreras pointed toward the visiting dugout and punched his chest with his right fist as he ran up the line. At first base, Contreras screamed and pounded his chest again, this time with both fists, a billboard for The Cubs Way.

“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Contreras said. “I was trying to have a good at-bat and make a good swing. That’s what I did. We don’t have to put pressure on ourselves. Once you start enjoying the game, you’re going to enjoy the playoffs.”

Be free. Be loose. Be yourself. That’s what Joe Maddon and his coaching staff kept telling this team, backed by a group of clubhouse enforcers with World Series experience.

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In an NLDS where Javier Baez showed off his defensive wizardry, pimping at home plate and absolute joy for the game, Contreras proved that he could channel all that adrenaline, too, handling his catching responsibilities in a tense playoff series and going 4-for-6 with a walk in seven plate appearances.

“He’s a winner,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Our young guys, they’re excitable, but I love that. Look at Javy and Willson — they’re going to do that stuff. Listen, it’s just the postseason. I have no problem with teams celebrating against us. I like the fact that our guys celebrate. They’re excited. They should celebrate. There’s no showing anybody up in October.”

At this time last year, Contreras watched the playoffs from the Arizona Fall League, picturing what he would do for the 2016 Cubs and how he would build off a season that saw him win a Southern League batting title at Double-A Tennessee.

The Cubs envisioned Contreras being this year’s Kyle Schwarber, the midseason shot of adrenaline to the lineup, behind the plate and in the outfield. It became more of a necessity when Schwarber wrecked his left knee during an outfield collision in early April.

The Cubs will return to the NL Championship Series and battle the Washington Nationals or Los Angeles Dodgers with a deep roster accented by versatility, premium young talent and fearless personalities. Contreras is the 24-year-old rookie who only spent a little more than two months at Triple-A Iowa — and has the rocket arm to help control the running game the New York Mets exploited during that 2015 NLCS sweep.

“I don’t have the words to say how big this year is for me and for the team,” Contreras said. “But we got to keep on. We got to keep working to the next series.”

The Cubs needed that burst of energy to overpower a Giants team that had won 10 straight postseason elimination games. This didn’t look like a random playoff moment for Contreras, who loves performing on the big stage.

“We play 27 outs,” Contreras said. “You got to give credit to the San Francisco Giants. That’s a really nice team. They never give up. But we did the little things. We never give up.”

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.