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BenFred: No-frills first meeting between Cardinals, Contreras set foundation for catcher's signing

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There was no dining, let alone wining. There wasn’t even breakfast. Coffee? One of the attendees that Wednesday morning showed up carrying his own.

In an era of baseball where free agents want to be wowed and wooed by teams that can make the wild world of college football recruiting look tame, three-time All-Star and World Series champion catcher Willson Contreras and the Cardinals walked a different path toward one another.

More direct. No nonsense.

In fact, the only fancy thing about that first face-to-face, late-November meeting in Orlando regarding the possibility of a former rival becoming a Cardinals centerpiece was the location of the conversation. What was scheduled to be a short, get-to-know-you-better 10 a.m. talk at the Ritz-Carlton instead became a lengthy discussion between a team needing to move forward after the retirement of an iconic catcher, and a free agent who has yearned for a team to trust him to become one.

When manager Oli Marmol and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak met that day with agent Jose Mijares and Contreras, both sides came with blunt questions for the other. Both sides liked the answers they received. A planned half-hour meeting turned into two and a half hours, and by the time goodbyes were shared a mutual appreciation had grown into something more.

“I felt the connection right away,” Contreras said Friday during his Cardinals introduction.

A momentum was in motion. It ended with the Cardinals sensing they could have found their man. Contreras would later reinforce that belief, when he accepted the Cardinals’ deal before one of his top-three teams reported back with its final offer.

“They knew Willson as a player,” agent Mijares said. “They wanted to know Willson as a person, who he really is. And Willson had the same feeling. He knew the organization, but he needed to know more to go there. That meeting was so important, to get both of us to the next step. After that, Willson told me, because he loved what they explained about the organization and the role he would have here, he said, ‘Jose,’ I know the other teams may try to offer us, more money, whatever, but make it happen. I want to be a Cardinal. Make it happen. That is the right place for me.’”

The recipient of uniform No. 40 (and a five-year, $87.5 million deal with a club option for 2028) nailed Friday’s opportunity to win over fans. Contreras showed great respect for future Hall of Famer Yadier Molina, perfectly toggling between explaining how much he looks up to the legend while also making it clear he came here to put his own signature on a job he knows this team and city demand so much from.

"Yadier Molina, we all know who that guy is," Contreras said. "The best catcher the last two decades. Future Hall of Famer, first ballot. He set the bar really high. He was my idol. I won't lie about it. But I came here to be Willson Contreras. For me, it's an honor. Big responsibility. I take it, and I know every time I step out on the field, I give 110 percent to win the day. Off the field, I do my best to help, in any way I can, the team. It's an honor to be wearing this uniform, succeeding Yadier Molina."

Contreras refused to make his Cardinals introduction about the rival Cubs letting him go, which was another smart call. It's obvious he’s made a commitment not to proving the Cubs wrong, but the Cardinals’ faith in him right.

He flashed some of the intensity and personality the Cardinals have transitioned from respecting but begrudging as opponents, to celebrating now.

Contreras impressed, to summarize, and Marmol and Mozeliak could be found enjoying the latest evidence that, yes, this is a great fit.

They had started finding out in Florida on Nov. 30.

As it became clear this week during Winter Meetings in San Diego that the Cardinals were zeroing in on Contreras, details started slipping out, as they always do. The trade ask for Oakland’s Sean Murphy was too high; the A’s wanted Lars Nootbaar, Brendan Donovan and Gordon Graceffo. The sit-down in Orlando had gone well. Really well. And the good vibes continued as contract details started being worked on in San Diego. The years and millions were never discussed in Florida, both sides confirmed Friday. There were more complicated matters to vet.

“When you see someone playing across the field from you, as much as we faced him with the Cubs, he had an image, right?” Mozeliak said. “A good one in the sense of, you didn’t want to face him. You didn’t want to see him come up to the plate with people on base. You thought he was one of those types of guys who can beat you. So, when you face someone like that, you tend not to like them. You can have an appreciation for talent, but it’s still kind of annoying, right? But spending time with him, getting to talk to him, getting to understand how the thinks about baseball and the appreciation he has for baseball, it was very enlightening for Oli and I. Impressive guy. Focused on one thing. He said winning probably 2,000 times. Good theme, because that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Said Contreras: "I know that when you play against me, you might not get the best perception. Because I play for you not to like me. But when you're on my team, my side, you will love me. I do everything I can for my team. You have to go out there and win the battle every single day."

Contreras’ thirst for winning struck Marmol. The catcher didn’t want to be recruited. He wants another ring. Contreras shared with the Cardinals his detailed in-season and off-season plans for improvement, along with his thoughts about how to work with pitchers and develop those crucial relationships with new teammates. The manager liked that Contreras wanted to get down to the baseball discussion as much as Marmol did, and showed little interest in being wined and dined.

“This guy cares about two things,” Marmol said. “His family. And winning.”

Mozeliak said he requested the Orlando visit to Contreras’ offseason home base to cut through some of the noise that surrounded the public conversation about the catcher. The president of baseball operations, for example, wanted a direct answer on if the powerful-hitting Contreras was determined to be the kind of primary catcher the Cardinals wanted (120-140 starts behind the plate per season). He is. Marmol was not shy about needing to see if Contreras’ fiery personality would help fuel his group, or threaten to overheat it. The former. By the way, you know who else inspired teammates and irked opponents? Molina.

“They have an edge to them, where you don’t want to mess with them,” Marmol said, comparing the two. “That’s a good trait to have as a catcher.”

Contreras during the talk wanted to hear from the Cardinals that they believed he could fill big shoes. He wanted to be sure the Cardinals processed the difference between playing against him and joining forces with him. He could tell they did.

“What impressed me the most is how transparent they were, from the first minute we talked,” Contreras said about that no-frills first sit-down in Florida. “They have transparency. They have empathy. And the direction. They’re always taking the team to win. It’s what made my decision.”

The Cardinals were moving in the same direction, and fast.

“I left that meeting and knew he was exactly what we needed,” Marmol said. “This guy is going to love playing here, and the city is absolutely going to love having him.”

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