The ink hardly dry on his new contract, George Kontos quickly jetted out of the polar vortex to warmer temperatures in Arizona.
His childhood dream had become his full-time job. On Jan. 25, the Chicago Cubs announced that they had signed Kontos to a minor-league deal.
“I was a Cubs fan since I was 5,” said Kontos, a longtime Lincolnwood resident.
Kontos played all of his amateur baseball in Illinois. He was a star pitcher at Niles West, then stayed local to play college ball at Northwestern.
He had to put his cheering preferences aside when the New York Yankees selected him in the fifth round of the 2006 MLB amateur draft. He made his major-league debut with the Yankees in 2011 and also has pitched for San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. He pitched against the Cubs in the 2016 National League Divison Series.
Now, though, Kontos can be a Cubs fan again. Armed with a minor-league deal and an invitation to spring training in Mesa, Ariz., he opted to get to camp early to make the best impression on manager Joe Maddon and his Cubs bosses.
At 33, Kontos faces some tough odds to break camp with the Cubs. The bullpen is loaded with veteran right-handers who were on the roster all of last season. Plus, star righty Yu Darvish is expected to return to the starting rotation.
Kontos, though, is motivated to make the roster.
“When the opportunity came about, it was the right fit and I was able to move forward,” Kontos said. “It’s something I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid. There were a few teams we were talking to, but the thought of playing in Chicago gave me a little bit extra drive.”
Kontos said he is not at all daunted by the spring-training competition against veterans on major-league contracts. He’ll tout his bullpen resume against anyone’s.
“The way I have always looked at it, if you pitch well and do your job, good things happen,” Kontos said. “I’ve pitched all over the bullpen for close to 400 games. I’ve pitched for competitive teams, and I offer a different look. I pitch in the lower 90s and sink it and cut it. I can go multiple innings.”
Kontos pitched in many pressure situations and became a World Series champion with the Giants in 2012. He also endured several trips to and from Triple-A while in the Giants organization.
Last year proved to be challenging in another way as he pitched for three major-league teams.
“It was a little hiccup last year,” Kontos said. “Being with three teams was definitely frustrating, but it’s often what you have to endure during course of a career. You get called up and go back down. Few guys have fairy-tale careers. But I’m happy it’s over.
“If you look at numbers, I’ve been pretty consistent in the 91-92 (mph) range. I dealt with mechanical issues for my struggles last year. My stuff feels as good as it’s ever been.”
Kontos’ parents, Nick and Theodora Kontos, still reside in their longtime Lincolnwood home. Kontos lives downtown and worked out in the offseason with other pro players at UIC.
George’s brother Chris has his own connection to the Cubs and their complicated history. Chris Kontos once played for the Renegades, a travel team coached by Steve Bartman.
George Castle is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.