FOR NEARLY TWO DECADES, St. Louis Cardinals catching great Yadier Molina was a fixture in an organization known for churning out pitchers and throwing out runners. Over a Hall-of-Fame worthy career, Molina was the most respected player on his team every time he donned the uniform.

For the final seven years of that career, Molina shared the space behind home plate 19 times a season with a younger, brasher and extremely talented fellow catcher on the other side of one of baseball’s most heated rivalries, Willson Contreras.

Despite the intense rivalry between the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, a mutual respect grew between the catchers.

“In 2021, we had a really nice talk at Busch Stadium,” Contreras told ESPN recently. “The advice he gave me was ‘Don’t change who you are.’ That’s what makes you really good. You have to know who you’re catching and understand those days you can play at 100 percent and those days where you can play at 80 percent.”

That interaction would stay with Contreras over the years, and particularly as both catchers approached the next chapter of their baseball careers. After 19 years in a Cardinals uniform, Molina had declared 2022 to be his last, while 300 miles north, Contreras was about to become a free agent for the first time.

When their teams met near the end of last season, Contreras and Molina met again, and Molina brought a gift — one that might have changed the course of Contreras’ career. “When the season ended, Yadi gave me a jersey,” Contreras said with a smile this spring. “I put it on, and I really liked the fit.”

The timing lined up perfectly, but the Cardinals weren’t going to take the decision on who followed Molina lightly. Ultimately, it was Contreras’ own words, after getting career advice directly from the St. Louis icon, that helped make the decision for them.

“It was two-pronged,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said of their conversation with Contreras. “One, ‘We like you as a player, so be you.’ But No. 2, ‘Do you understand what you’re stepping into?’ The interesting way of how he answered it — and it caught [manager Oliver Marmol] and I — was he was welcoming that. There’s a lot of people that prefer not to have to be that guy. In Willson’s case, it shows you, he does have self-confidence.”

That swagger was earned. At the time of his first free agency, Contreras had already won a World Series, produced four 20-home run seasons and appeared in three All-Star Games. The mindset and résumé won the Cardinals over, and on Dec. 7, 2022, Contreras agreed to a five-year, $87.5 contract to take over catching duties for Molina in St. Louis.

“I wouldn’t call it replacing him,” Contreras said. “I would say I’m succeeding the best catcher in the game over the last two decades.”

WHEN IT COMES to replacing a legend, it’s much easier to say all the right things in the offseason than to do it on the field from April through October. According to others who have been tasked with following a franchise icon, the pressure that comes from player, fan and media expectations can become difficult to manage.

Like Contreras in St. Louis, Matt Olson had previous major league success when he took over at first base in Atlanta after Freddie Freeman left for the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. The new Braves first baseman hit 34 home runs and compiled a .802 OPS in 2022 after being traded by the Oakland Athletics.

“I’ve been in that situation, but I had my own career going in,” Olson said. “It can be easy to put unneeded pressure on yourself. You can’t let yourself do that. If you’re confident, it won’t be a huge factor. Once you transition to your new team, then you can get back to being yourself.”

Current Cubs third baseman Patrick Wisdom knows that the task of replacing an icon while still trying to establish yourself as a young player can be exponentially tougher. His first season as a Texas Ranger, in 2019, was the organization’s first after future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre retired.

“There’s a lot to live up to, for sure,” Wisdom said. “I felt the weight of that. It was definitely a huge weight on my shoulders. …When you have those shoes to fill, it becomes pretty big.

“You have to stay true to the player who you are.”

Wisdom hit just .154 during his brief time in Texas — which makes what Houston Astros shortstop Jeremy Pena was able to do in the first season following Carlos Correa‘s seven-year run in Houston even more impressive.

As a rookie, Pena replaced a two-time All-Star, former Rookie of the Year and World Series champ — and was named MVP of both the ALCS and in a World Series win of his own. He also won the Gold Glove at shortstop — the same award Correa had won as an Astro in 2021.

“I just didn’t look at it that way,” Pena said. “I just saw it as I’m going to be the shortstop for the Houston Astros. The goal was just to come in, do my job and win baseball games.

“Be yourself. Let everything else take care of itself.”

While it won’t take a trophy case full of new hardware like Pena collected for Contreras’ first season with the Cardinals to be deemed a success, taking the shortstop’s advice — which sounds a lot like the wisdom he got from Molina himself — could be the key to unlocking the best version of himself in his new home.

“I like a challenge,” Contreras said. “He left huge shoes to fill. The way I look at it, I have to be myself. It’s impossible for me to think I’m the second Molina.”

FROM THE OPPOSING DUGOUT, the Cardinals had seen Contreras as a catcher who played with his emotions on display and enjoyed getting under the skin of his opponent — the kind of player who rival teams hated to face, but teammates loved to have on their side. In fact, his style reminded some in the St. Louis organization of another star catcher — Molina.

“They both are ultracompetitive and you don’t want to cross them,” Marmol said. “That’s a great trait to have as a catcher. They both put a little bit of fear into the opposition and when we were looking to fill that position, it was a matter of finding someone that could offensively produce but also someone that had that competitive nature that will come across and kill you. He has a little of that in him.”

Despite the similarities, the odds of Contreras following Molina in St. Louis seemed slim. First, the catcher had to be sure that the door on a return to the Cubs was shut.

After all, he had first burst onto the scene during the team’s 2016 title run — playing alongside veteran catchers Miguel Montero and his eventual manager, David Ross — and the converted infielder quickly became a fan favorite at Wrigley Field thanks to a rocket arm, quick bat and an outwardly emotional style.

But this offseason, the front office had to make a decision on a player who had been with the organization since 2009, when he was signed as a 17-year-old. His last contract offer had come in 2018 for about $35 million over six years with two options, which could grow the deal to $64 million over eight — but the team clearly wasn’t prioritizing a long-term deal during his final four years in Chicago.

“He did great things for the organization. I’m really happy for him”. Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said about not pursuing a long-term contract this offseason. “I’m not going to say anything about why not. I don’t think it serves anyone.”

Contreras, though, wanted to stay and expressed that to both his manager and pitching coach midway through the 2022 season.

“I got to the ballpark early and went to the manager’s office,” Contreras recalled. “I said ‘Hey, I think this is where I deserve to be. I want to be here. I want to be a guy that helps the younger guys get to the big leagues and guide them the right way.’

“Then I went to [pitching coach] Tommy [Hottovy] and I said the same thing. Tommy got emotional because I said it with my heart. That was it. I said that and the year went on and I was never approached by anyone. I was hoping for that but it was almost like when they saw me, they were looking in a different direction.”

With a younger team, they wanted a clean break, and that is when a rival team emerged.

“I was intrigued by the Cardinals because I heard a lot of good stuff,” Contreras said. “The chances of me coming back to the Cubs was like 10 percent at that time [late in 2022].”

Contreras met with the Cardinals in Orlando, Florida, early in the offseason, and St. Louis became convinced that Contreras’ intensity would be a positive addition to the team’s clubhouse.

“Meeting him made a difference,” Marmol said. “You see someone across the diamond and sometimes you get a different impression.”

By the end of the winter meetings, Contreras’ move across the National League Central was complete — and even the newest Cardinal was surprised by the fallout.

“To be honest, when I was on the other side [with the Cubs], I didn’t know it was this big,” Contreras said. “When I signed, that’s when I noticed how big the rivalry is because I read some things on the internet about Cubs fans towards me, which is really tough to read. But at the same time, it’s hard to make everyone happy.”

Since signing, Contreras has inflamed the rivalry — calling the Cardinals “a better organization” than the Cubs — but those that know him claim he’s trying to endear himself to his new team more than criticize his old franchise.

“I want the fans to know I did the best to remain with the Cubs,” Contreras said. “I understand they aren’t going to like me when I play against them but I’m always going to be there for them.”

While Cubs fans are still coming to terms with seeing Contreras in a different uniform, his new franchise is focused on the player they gained — and not who he is trying to replace.

“The Cardinals signed him to be Willson. Not Yadi or anyone else,” Mozeliak said.” He’s a darn good player himself.”

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How Willson Contreras is following a Cardinals icon