Column: Willson Contreras said what needed to be said — and now it’s up to his Chicago Cubs teammates to listen and respond

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A little more than a decade ago, on a team going nowhere fast, Chicago Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano launched an attack on his teammates after a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.

“We play like a Triple-A team,” Zambrano fumed on June 5, 2011. “This is embarrassing. Embarrassing for the team and the owners. Embarrassing for the fans. Embarrassed — that’s the word for this team. We should know better than what we (did) on the field. ... We should play better here. We (stink). That’s all I’ve got to say.”

While some of Zambrano’s words were lost in translation, it became known as his “We Stinks” rant.

Zambrano didn’t last in a Cubs uniform much longer. He walked out on the team after leaving a start in Atlanta that August, telling the clubhouse man he was quitting. Though he later changed his mind, the Cubs suspended Zambrano and new President Theo Epstein traded him in the offseason.

Willson Contreras was much more low-key Saturday night when he ripped his teammates for not showing much effort in a 6-0 loss to the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. Asked if he felt the effort was there, Contreras replied: “No, I don’t to be honest. I feel like everybody was off. Everybody was distracted. I don’t know why. Probably because the All-Star break is pretty close. I don’t think that way, but I didn’t think we were on today.”

Does Contreras consider himself a team leader?

“Of course,” he said.

Then didn’t he feel he could say something to his teammates?

“I think there is a lot going on,” he said. “There are a lot of things I’d like to say, but I’d rather keep it to myself than say it.”

Contreras basically absolved himself and Javier Báez from blame and said everyone has his own “work ethic.”

“We have to win as a team, but also I cannot ask everybody to play like I do or to play like Báez and I play,” he said. “Everyone is different. I know they might be tired, but I’m here to win. I’m here to compete, and that’s what I like to (get) from everybody else.”

The passionate catcher may not be as loud as Zambrano, but his words carry much more weight than Zambrano’s did in 2011. Contreras is a respected veteran and one of the hardest-working players in the game. He reached the All-Star break with a major-league-leading 74 starts at catcher, and his 623⅔ innings behind the plate also led the majors entering Sunday. His work ethic cannot be challenged.

Naturally, manger David Ross disagreed with the comments, as any manager would when it reflects poorly on him. He said Contreras was “frustrated” by the recent losing stretch that has seen the Cubs lose 13 of their last 15 games.

So is Contreras a leader?

“I think Willson is a big part of our team and I think that what he said (Saturday night) needs to be said in house and not to the media,” Ross said. “I think he understands that, I think that’s a good lesson. But I think good is going to come of it, if that makes any sense.”

It does not.

No good will come out of Contreras’ criticism unless it is heeded. And if Ross believes Contreras was wrong about the lack of effort in the first place, there’s no reason for the team to listen to the catcher.

“I don’t know how the questions were framed and all those things, but I think the message was a little misinterpreted in the context of what I heard him talk about today,” Ross said. “I don’t think it’s effort. I don’t think it’s a focus. These guys are giving effort, there’s no doubt about that, and these guys work and prepare.”

We don’t know what Contreras said that led Ross to believe he was “misinterpreted.” The media is banned from the clubhouse due to COVID-19 protocols, and Contreras did not speak to the media Sunday.

But the questions Saturday night were framed properly, and all anyone has to do is listen to the recording and see that the message was not misinterpreted by the media.

Either way, Ross has his hands full now.

The team’s marketing campaign this year is centered on the slogan “Cub Together.” Now we can only hope “Cub Apart” isn’t the theme of the second half.

What’s next after the All-Star break?

The Cubs can only hope this blows over the next five days and the “conversations” Ross alluded to in the clubhouse Sunday resolved any lingering issues between players. A fresh start in Arizona on Friday could change the focus, and having fewer media members on the road trip should help.

What we do know is that this is a unique moment in Cubs history.

The team will not reach the 85% threshold of fully-vaccinated Tier 1 personnel to relax MLB’s COVID-19 protocols, and team leaders Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward have admitted they will not get the vaccine. The team is in a free-fall after being in first place in the National League Central, or a first-place tie, for nearly a month before the start of the 11-game losing streak June 25, one day after a combined no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Three prominent free agents — Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Báez — may be dealt in the next few weeks, after President Jed Hoyer suggested a reset was in order with postseason chances remote.

The ballpark was packed again this weekend, along with local bars and restaurants, suggesting the Rickettses and Wrigleyville in general have turned a page after the pandemic-related losses of revenue in 2020. Soon Cubs fans will be asked to pay some of the highest ticket prices in the game to watch a team that will likely be in a constant state of turnover throughout the second half.

Strange days indeed. Enjoy the break.

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