Cubs

Willson Contreras' mind is on baseball, while his heart is in Venezuela

Willson Contreras' mind is on baseball, while his heart is in Venezuela

Facing his locker, AirPods in his ears, Willson Contreras pulled out a little samba move as he danced his way into the next phase of his pre-game routine.

Before meetings and batting practice, Contreras began his morning by lifting weights, trying to get his mind on baseball and off the stress that has heaped the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Baseball is providing the 26 year-old with an escape from the devastating situation in his homeland of Venezuela.

“When I’m at the ballpark I’m happy, I enjoy my teammates and every second here,” Contreras told me during spring training. “But once you leave, everything that comes to my mind is Venezuela. How are the people doing there and when is going to be the end?”

Contreras’ 2019 resurgence – including a monster home run Wednesday night in Seattle – is even more remarkable when you put in perspective everything he’s dealing with on a daily basis outside of baseball.

This isn’t managing some prolonged slump at the plate or a 2-7 start to the season. To Venezuelans, this is a matter of life or death.

“I went down to Venezuela... it’s hard to see kids from 5 to 8 years old looking in a trash can for food,” he said. “It’s hard to see people dying because they don’t have medicine at all. Nowadays, it’s hard to go down there because you watch all of that.”

Watching Venezuelans contemplate their future in their home country hurts.

"It’s not supposed to be that way because we’re born in Venezuela and you want your future to be in Venezuela,” Contreras said.

Just this week, thousands of marchers protested in Venezuela to try to force socialist President Nicolás Maduro from power. With tensions escalating and a revolution on their hands, Contreras told me before suiting up for the Cubs and Mariners game on Tuesday he’s just scared for his country.

“Everybody doesn’t have the same heart because the regime knows how bad they’re doing to the country,” he said in spring training. “They know they’re killing people. They know the military is killing people because the regime is making orders. You cannot go to the streets and have a democracy because the military will kill you just like that. It’s hard. It’s really hard.”

With those thoughts constantly weighing on his heart and mind, Contreras continues to find a way to channel his emotions into the game he loves as much as his country.

Willson Contreras is raising money for his country by selling  "Freedom for Venezuela" shirts, with 100% of the profits going to Venezuela.

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David Bote puts his sweet swing to use, assists two Cubs fans in gender reveal

David Bote puts his sweet swing to use, assists two Cubs fans in gender reveal

David Bote put his sweet, sweet swing to special use on Tuesday.

Prior to the Cubs’ Cactus League game vs. the Rockies, a couple of Cubs fans asked Bote to partake in their gender reveal. The duo brought a powder-infused baseball, asking Bote to take a hack to reveal whether they’re having a boy or girl.

The father-to-be tossed the ball to Bote, who smashed it open to unleash a pink cloud of powder — signifying the couple will have a girl. The 26-year-old infielder — who has two daughters himself — threw his arms in the air to celebrate.

No matter how you feel about gender reveals, you’ve gotta love the uniqueness of this one and Bote partaking in the special moment. Here’s to a healthy life for the baby! 

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Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. is off to a hot start in spring training

Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. is off to a hot start in spring training

The Cubs have only played three spring training games, and it’s dangerous to use spring results to predict regular season successes and failures. Still, it’s okay to acknowledge Albert Almora Jr.’s hot start in camp.

In two games, Almora is 4-for-4 with a walk, double, home run, four RBIs and four runs scored. That line is essentially equivalent to a single game in the regular season and could be turned upside down by the end of the week. But it’s a start for the 25-year-old who has struggled immensely at the plate for the last season and a half.

In his last 177 games (dating back to the second half of 2018), Almora holds a .235/.270/.347 slash line. The advanced stats paint an uglier picture: 58 wRC+, .261 wOBA and 52.2 percent groundball rate.

Last season was the most challenging of Almora’s young career. He hit .236/.271/.381 in 130 games with a 64 wRC+, .271 wOBA, -0.7 fWAR (all career worsts). On top of that, he was involved in a heartbreaking moment early in the season; an Almora foul ball struck a young girl at Minute Maid Park during a Cubs-Astros game in May.

Almora refused to blame his 2019 offensive woes on that incident, though it obviously played a part. He did admit that he was in a bad place mentally and used this winter to decompress. Almora also used it to make some adjustments to his swing and the changes are clear as day:

Pre-2020:

2020:

As MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian notes, Almora is now more upright in the box and his stance is more closed. His leg kick is less defined and he’s rotating his front leg far less than previous seasons. In short, he’s more direct to his swing and has more time to react in the box because he cut out a lot of his pre-swing movements.

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Almora said Monday he’s far from where he wants to be, pointing out the MLB season is a 200-day marathon. It’s too early to tell whether his simplified approach leads to sustainable success.

Small sample size be damned, Almora’s made noticeable adjustments. That’s the first step in his mission to get back on track offensively.

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