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Hochman: From tape ball to MLB, journey of Willson Contreras and brother is powerful

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Wrapping up the Winter Warm-up

Newly signed Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras enjoys signing a pair of his old torn Cubs pants for a fan during the final day of Cardinals Winter Warm-up at Ballpark Village on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023.

The race for first place in the National League Central could come down to Contreras.

Which one, of course, remains an unknown.

The Cardinals won the division in 2022, while the Brewers won in ’21. This season, perhaps you heard, the Cardinals’ new catcher is Willson Contreras. And the Brewers’ new catcher is his brother, William, who hit 20 homers in just 334 at-bats last year for Atlanta.

“He’s really still swallowing the trade — it was really impactful for him,” Willson said during Winter Warm-up. “And I am really happy for him because I know that he’s going to have the chance to be himself in Milwaukee. And we’re already talking about some situations there. But it’s going to be fun to play against my brother more than I did last year. And I’m looking forward just to beat him. Because I know he wants to beat me, but I want to beat him. Because even though we’re brothers, it’s part of the game.”

It really is a riveting storyline. Their stories began on the streets of Puerto Cabello on the northern coast of Venezuela.

“We used to play baseball with a piece of stick and tape ball,” Willson said.

From those streets, Willson paved a new path. The game wasn’t simply a game. His dedication led him to a Venezuelan baseball academy at 16. The Cubs signed him at 17.

Wrapping up the Winter Warm-up

Newly signed Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras visits with fans during an autograph session on the final day of Cardinals Winter Warm-up at Ballpark Village on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023.

His brother was five years younger.

“We always wanted to be big leaguers,” Willson said. “So when I signed, he once told me that I was his example to follow. So he put some weight on my shoulders that I took, because I like to take challenges and responsibilities.

“And I told him — don’t give up. It’s not going to be easy. You have to get to the United States, you have to learn the language, the culture. A lot of times you will find yourself (and wonder), like, ‘What am I doing here?’ But we have to think about our family, what we want to accomplish in our life.”

Willson Contreras made his major-league debut in the summer of 2016.

That fall, his team won the World Series.

William Contreras made his major-league debut in the summer of 2021.

That fall, his team won the World Series.

“Once I found out he got the call-up, I started crying,” said Willson, who played for the Cubs from 2016-22. “It was something that I always look forward to. And we’re really humbled to be in the big leagues and spend it in the same league together.”

In April of last season, the Contreras brothers exchanged the lineup cards at home before a Cubs-Braves game. Willson made three All-Star teams as a Cub, most recently as a starter in 2022. That summer, William was named as a reserve to the same National League All-Star team. The manager was Atlanta’s Brian Snitker. In his batting order, the skipper Snitker had catcher Willson Contreras bat sixth … and designated hitter William Contreras bat seventh.

Now, the Cardinals’ fan base has a particular appreciation for catching families. Over the years, St. Louis learned the traits and anecdotes that came to define the family Molina. There was the son Yadier. He was pretty good. And his older brother, Bengie, also became part of the Cardinals’ culture, most recently as a broadcaster (a third brother, Jose, also played in the bigs … and all three won a World Series).

The likable Francisco Pena played the 2018 season in St. Louis, where his famous father, Tony, was an All-Star Cardinals catcher and member of the 1987 pennant winners. Also, Matt Pagnozzi had 42 at-bats for the club that his uncle, Tom, won three Gold Gloves as the catcher. And in the 1940s, including three World Series, Walker Cooper was the Cardinals backstop, while brother Mort was on the mound — in the song “Talkin’ Cardinals Baseball,” Terry Cashman sang: “Mort pitchin’, Walker catchin’, St. Louis was another Cooperstown.”

Heading into 2023, there is some talk in this town that Willson can be the third big bat needed in the Cardinals lineup. And it’s true, he’s hit 20 or more home runs in four of the past five full seasons. One thing to wonder about is the number of games he’ll play. In the past five full seasons, he averaged 120.2 games played. Last season, Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol did a masterful job utilizing the DH spot. There could be days that Contreras is still in the lineup, even with Andrew Knizner catching. That can sure help with health.

As for the division, the Cardinals should be the frontrunners, though the Cubs signed a bunch of bats, and the Brewers still have some brilliant hurlers. While it was Atlanta (with new catcher Sean Murphy) who sent William to Milwaukee, Willson himself chose to leave the Cubs for the Cardinals. He came here to win the division, sure. But he also came here to recreate history.

He said winning the World Series with the 2016 Cubs “keeps me motivated and keeps me wanting to win every year. We know that winning every year is impossible. But there’s something that this organization has in their mind — to win the World Series and get to the World Series. And I think it’s time to get there. So once you win the World Series, you stay hungry about it. You want to get there every single year. And that’s something that these guys are showing me so far — that they want to win the World Series.”

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman shares his thoughts about the state of the National League. Also, a happy birthday shoutout to former Blues star Red Berenson. And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat.

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