CHICAGO — A single sheet of paper sat on Willson Contreras’ chair in front of his locker when the Chicago Cubs rookie showed up for practice on Friday. It was a form letter asking players to list the names of people picking up the four tickets set aside for family members ahead of the NL Championship Series opener.
Someone asked Contreras who would be picking up his.
“Nobody,” the 24-year-old catcher said, trying to force a grin.
Behind that rueful smile is a long story. Baseball provided Contreras a path out of the tough times back home in Venezuela and swept him to the top of the major leagues. But even that lofty position hasn’t enabled him yet to get his parents, Olga and William, a visa to follow him to the United States. Their application for a temporary visa to watch him during the playoffs wasn’t successful, either.
“Everybody’s back home,” Contreras confirmed. “It’s hard to get them here at this time of the year.”
They will be watching on TV from a new home he bought them, in a neighborhood with security guards. It was there that they saw their older son drive a tying single up the middle in Chicago’s opening-round clinching win against the Giants.
Contreras even has food delivered to their home, so his parents don’t have to venture out to the grocery store, where long lines await. But fears about their safety never slip his mind for long.
“Hopefully,” Conteras added a moment later, “next year, they’ll be here.”
“Wait until next year” has been the Cubs’ unofficial motto for a century and counting. Yet it carries just as much longing for the young Venezuelan as the most grizzled denizen of the city’s North Side. Contreras made it to these shores a half-dozen years ago, followed soon after by younger brother, William, who is playing in the Braves’ organization. The boys never forget on whose shoulders they stood, making that huge step possible.
At this time last year, Contreras was playing Double-A ball in Tennessee and he paused to carve “Ernesto” into the dirt before each at-bat, honoring the grandfather who’d died back home barely two months earlier. This fall, he worries about his parents’ safety in a cash-strapped country where kidnapping the relatives of a famous baseball player is viewed as a lucrative business.
In 2011, kidnappers there grabbed Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos and held him for ransom; fortunately, Ramos was eventually rescued.
“We don’t talk about it that much, but we know what each other is going through,” said Albert Almora Jr., another rookie whose locker is close by. “Sometime, after a game, you can come here and see certain guys text messaging and you know they’re talking to family — Willson, with his folks, in my case, it’s my dad. He’s fighting prostate cancer. … So we make it a point to check in with each other every so often.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon knew Contreras’ situation when the team called him up from Triple-A at midseason. As if learning to call games for a veteran and sometimes-finicky staff and bullpen wasn’t hard enough, the manager had planned to pile more on his plate. Maddon wanted the one-time infielder to try his hand at first base and the outfield as well as behind the plate.
Contreras rewarded Maddon’s faith by homering in his first big-league at-bat. His teammates made him feel right at home by shooing him out of the dugout soon after, reminding Contreras he still had to warm-up the relievers back in the bullpen. But he’s made a good argument for deserving a regular spot in the lineup by hitting no matter which glove he was wearing. But just as impressive, Maddon says, is Contreras’ ability to compartmentalize all those jobs while still keeping one eye on his family a continent away.
“As a parent and as a manger, if my kids aren’t having a good day, then I’m not. But when your family is down there, it’s hard to stay right here,” Maddon recalled recently.
Having his fiancee here has brought a bit of home along with him. So has finding a handful of seafood restaurants and long walks along Lake Michigan, which is as close to the beach near Contreras’ home in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, as he’s likely to find for the moment.
It will have to do.
“I’m able to separate my personal situation from the game and I know that everybody back home is OK,” Contreras said finally. “So I’ll be fine.”