Contreras and Molina Take Center Stage as Cubs and Cards Open Season Series
Boy, baseball tempers are sure erupting. In the past week, Nolan Arenado cleared benches against the Padres; the bell rang in the latest Yankees-Red Sox round; and of course, Clint Hurdle v. Javy Baez seemed to leave Baez fans perhaps the most bruised of all.
With so many flaring nostrils, it was like the MLB version of the Running of the Bulls. Almost made us forget a week ago today baseball’s two most passionate, hard-glaring catchers were the red-ass talk of the sport.
As a reminder, cameras caught Willson Contreras standing on third base in Milwaukee impersonating a vulgarity pinball. First, it appeared as though he was cursing at Cubs coach Brian Butterfield. Then he bounced his bile to a Brewers player and repeatedly mouthed the same expletive like a ferocious Venezuelan GIF.
Meanwhile, down I-55 in St. Louis, Yadier Molina flipped out on Arizona manager Torey Lovullo, as Lovullo was flipping out on an umpire. Molina happily used the occasion to shove a couple umpires, an act that earned him a one-game vacation at the Manfred Motel.
Hothead goats and heroes
Of all these incidents, the chest-protector pounding by the two Midwest catchers offers the most intrigue. First, the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry restarts tomorrow. Contreras clearly wants to depose Molina (along with Buster Posey) as the reigning monarch of the NL catching kingdom. Will they respectfully wink at each other’s hotheadness, or is a collision inevitable at some point this year?
Second, hothead catchers have an interesting history in baseball. Some are revered as take-no-guff field generals (Molina falls into this category). Others readily show off different “tools of ignorance” by letting their fire and ire undermine team cohesion.
By itself, hotheadedness is neither good nor bad for a team. Take Carlton Fisk. While with the White Sox, the 6-foot-3, power-lifting hall of famer always seemed one shaken-off signal away from exploding on Greg Hibbard. However, he usually reserved his full rage for those he felt disrespected the game (Deion Sanders) or his teammates (tight-fisted Red Sox GM Haywood Sullivan).
Grimace and Barrett
At the other end of the spectrum was Michael Barrett. During his Cubs career, Barrett’s ego and temper regularly created rifts inside and out of his clubhouse. He had reported problems with Ryan Dempster, Rich Hill, and Will Ohman, and the feuds culminated in 2007 when he and fellow hothead Carlos Zambrano brawled in the dugout.
However, Barrett’s most famous hothead moment came in 2006 when he blocked the plate on White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, got plowed over, and then vented by cold-cocking Pierzynski. Largely overlooked was how no Cubs player really defended Barrett. It was like Posey last year refusing to keep Bryce Harper from charging Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland.
It’s also worth noting that Pierzynski was an aggressive, antagonizing player. But he much preferred provoking the other team’s hotheads and taking them out of their games. He was the Dennis Rodman of baseball. Or as Ozzie Guillen once joked, “If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.”
Getting back to Contreras, are his histrionics good or bad? One always loves passion, but in baseball, unfocused passion is usually wasted energy or worse. Contreras clearly lacks control at times. Following a two-game suspension last year, Manager Joe Maddon said Contreras needs to eliminate his tendency to go from “zero to 60” with his anger.
Likewise, Contreras would benefit from a think-before-speaking approach in public comments about teammates. For example, in a post-game interview last year, he called Jose Quintana – who is four years Contreras’ senior – “a good kid.” Jon Lester also disputed Contreras’ profane, self-glorifying take on a Lester pickoff, told at (of all things) a Cubs Convention Kids Only panel.
These verbal missteps call to mind another former Cubs catcher, Miguel Montero. Commenting once on a recent Cubs acquisition, Montero noted the pitcher would regularly “space out” on the mound but Montero knew how to keep the pitcher focused. Ultimately, his post-World Series complaints about Joe Maddon and later laments about Jake Arrieta’s inability to hold runners got Montero released.
The good news is the Cubs’ current winning environment should prevent Contreras from sliding into full Zambrano mode and turning on teammates. As long as the team wins and Contreras contributes with his bat and arm, his teammates should remain happily shocked and amused by his crazy antics.
That’s where having a strong veteran presence and open clubhouse communication are key. It’s like having Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen there to corral Rodman during his time in Chicago. While hothead antics can eventually wear thin if they continue unchecked or are not used strategically, they can spark a team when channeled in the right manner.