Twins

Catching Up with the Catcher: Chris Gimenez on Iowa, Willson Contreras, Joe Maddon and More

Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO — Wrigley Field is a logistical nightmare for a rookie reporter.

Good luck finding the visiting clubhouse, which is situated between a wide range of box seats on the first-base side, but down a concourse that looks no different than those used by fans to get to their seats.

The home clubhouse is an even bigger struggle. After having no luck searching for 15 minutes, I found a concessions worker who brought me through what felt like a low-traffic, high-security area only to deposit me in front of a man with a podium in front of a door that said “clubhouse.”

“You guys open at 10:30?” I asked.

“Excuse me,” he said?

“The clubhouse. I hear it’s supposed to open at 10:30 this morning,” I reiterated, quickly checking my watch to see that was about 15 minutes from happening. After driving 45 minutes in from my hotel in the suburbs, I was feeling pretty good about parking and walking to the stadium with time to spare on just my second-ever day in Chicago.

The attendant gave me a blank stare. Former Twins pitcher Randy Rosario walked by, and the attendant scanned his card and let him in a locked door.

I figured out quickly that the worker had brought me to the player’s entrance. Whoops.

I retraced my steps, asked once more and found out that it’s a very normal looking green door guarded by a man in a bright yellow vest where I needed to be.

I made my way down to the Cubs clubhouse with my mind set on one thing: catching up with the catcher.

Albert Almora Jr. was by his locker, and I made a quick beeline to introduce myself to him. When he was a member of Team USA’s U18 team in 2010, I had actually done play-by-play when they took on the Minnetonka Millers (Twin Cities Class A town ball powerhouse) in a barnstorming tour.

Almora played in that game — and had some impressive teammates like Francisco Lindor, Lance McCullers Jr., Michael Lorenzen, Nicky Delmonico, Bubba Starling and a few others — so I figured it was my only chance.

He received that warmly and shook my hand before getting back to his pre-game duties. I spied rookie reliever Dillon Maples across the clubhouse, and didn’t even realize that he too was on that USA team.

Oh well.

He had just re-joined the team Sunday morning after former Twins reliever Brian Duensing was placed on the disabled list with left arm fatigue.

Ultimately, Gimenez came charging into the clubhouse through an illuminated tunnel — it’s hard to explain, but it’s almost like LED-lit pillars in the hall, similar to those on either side of the player lockers — and was immediately stopped by the sideline reporter. They chatted for a minute and he agreed to do a stand-up interview by his locker, but as he passed me, he said, “ What’s up B! Catching up with the catcher!”

May 28, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Chicago Cubs catcher Chris Gimenez (53) looks on from behind the plate against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the sixth inning at PNC Park. Chicago won 7-0. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

So he definitely recognized this ugly mug, and some of the videos we did on YouTube last year. That was kind of neat. Gimenez has this uncanny ability to make you feel like you’re the only person in the world he wants to talk to at that moment, and he’s always looking eye-to-eye with you rather than seeing who else is in the room to talk to.

It’s that warmth and persona that has a journeyman catcher who is hitting .143 this year in limited at-bats, .216 in his career and has played for six MLB squads in 10 years a must-get interview for whichever reporter is covering the team he’s currently on.

It didn’t start this way in 2018.

Out of spring training, Gimenez — a non-roster invitee — was sent to Triple-A Iowa as the Cubs went with a youth movement behind the plate, as Victor Caratini (24) backed up Willson Contreras (26) instead of Gimenez.

How young are these two? They came into the season with a combined 777 MLB plate appearances — more than 200 fewer than Gimenez, who set a career high with 225 with the Twins last season.

Before 2017, Gimenez had never taken more than 155 plate appearances in the big leagues in any season.

Gimenez hadn’t played in Triple-A since doing so for Round Rock (Rangers) in 2015, and it clearly stung him as a 35-year-old veteran.

“It was tough,” he said. “I hadn’t been at Triple-A in four years. I had a hard time dealing with it mentally at first. For the first two weeks, I have to admit, I was sulking. I wasn’t doing anybody any good. Not only that, but it reflected in my play. I stunk. After that, I kind of got over it a little bit, and just realized that every day you get to play baseball — whether it’s in Triple-A, A-ball, obviously the big leagues — is a pretty good day. It’s one less day I have to get a real job.”

Gimenez hit .224/.316/.276 in his 36 games in Des Moines, and got the call to the Cubs in late May with an opt-out date looming in his contract. Beyond that, Caratini was hitting just .262/.304/.308 and was likely going to benefit from more regular playing time at Iowa anyway.

That allowed Gimenez to begin his mentorship of Contreras, an absurdly-talented youngster who is the future for the Cubs behind the plate for years to come.

“Wow. Oh man. Honestly, that kid has uber potential,” a clearly enthusiastic Gimenez said when asked about Contreras as his pupil. “From the offensive standpoint, defensive standpoint…it’s fun to have a guy with all the tools you wish you had yourself, and then try to use what I know in my head with the experiences I’ve had and try to impart that on him.

“I’m starting to see a little bit of me coming out in him. If I had his talent, my God, I’d be the greatest player in baseball, I feel like. He has that much ability. He’s really just starting to tap into it, which is a pretty cool thing.”

Gimenez feels like he’s landed in a good spot, but he really, really has fond memories of his season in Minnesota.

“Honestly, it was the greatest year of my career,” he said. “What we were able to do, the group of guys we had…that’s something you’ll never forget, number one. I think the fact that we proved a lot of people wrong, and while we didn’t get to our ultimate goal, we definitely took some steps in the right direction.

Aug 25, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Minnesota Twins relief pitcher John Curtiss (27) is greeted by catcher Chris Gimenez (38) as the celebrate a win over Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

“To be a part of the only team to ever lose 104 games and come back and make the playoffs the next year is pretty special.”

He came close to returning to the Twins over the offseason, too.

“I was really close,” he said. “I understood the situation. They were very, very upfront with me. Obviously, Mitch Garver is an extreme talent himself. It was his turn, and he needed a chance. And still having Jason (Castro) there — who is a stud in his own right — before we knew what we know now…obviously now you can look back and say ‘Shoot, what could have been’ but I also don’t feel like I landed in a terrible spot here, either.”

Part of landing in that spot is playing for Joe Maddon, regarded as one of the finest managers in the game and a character besides.

“It’s pretty special,” Gimenez said of getting to play for Maddon. “He definitely keeps things light, keeps the mood very, very light. Honestly what I like about him the most is that he allows you to be you. You get the best you when you’re out there being you. I know that sounds kind of funny to say, but he’s very, very open to guys being themselves. Whether it’s what you wear to the field, how you play the game, he has one rule: “Just run hard to first base.” The rest will take care of itself. He does a good job of letting the clubhouse police themselves, and the rest is kind of history.”

Not only has Gimenez landed in a good spot, but after a bumpy start to the year, he’s been able to have his family around lately, which he greatly appreciates.

“It’s tough being away from your family because they weren’t able to be out there then,” Gimenez said of starting his season in Des Moines. “My son was in school back in Nevada, so we decided to keep him there. But they got in on (Saturday) night, so I get to spend the next three weeks with them. I’m excited about that.”

Then there’s keeping up with his former teammates. I had to wait a while to see him come charging into the Cubs clubhouse similar to how the Ultimate Warrior used to charge into wrestling rings.

Why?

He was over visiting his former comrades in the cramped visiting clubhouse.


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