|Monday, November 11
Updated: November 12, 3:21 PM ET
Changing allegiances for Cuba's Contreras
By Tom Farrey
He may as well be the poet laureate for every American sports fan whose favorite team treats him as an ATM from which to draw cash, every pro athlete tired of being traded every two years, every patriot who cannot fathom why the best tennis players skip the Davis Cup, every sentimentalist who hopes pay-for-play never comes to college sports, and every moralist who wants games to be a force for good.
"Professional athletics are the antithesis of sport, a cultural instrument to ruin sports, and only our revolutionary concept of sport will be an instrument to educate our culture, an instrument of well-being," Castro declared in 1966, seven years after seizing power in a peasant revolt. As a former multi-sport athlete himself, Castro believes in the value of sports so deeply he made it one of the three pillars of Cuban communism, as important as health care and education.
So he brought big-time baseball to places like Pinar del Rio, out in the country.
And stocked those teams with players like pitcher Jose Contreras, who is country strong.
Contreras, the son of a tobacco farm laborer.
Contreras, the son of a staunch Revolutionary.
Contreras, who brought honor to that Revolution -- and Castro to his feet.
Contreras, who ultimately dropped Castro to his knees.
A long time coming
Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez won better than 70 percent of his games in the Cuban league, but Contreras proved to be more valuable to the national team. He throws harder than El Duque, and turns 31 in December. He's still in his prime, which wasn't the case with Hernandez, who joined the New York Yankees when he already was in his early-to-mid 30s, as best as anyone can tell.
Livan Hernandez was still a member of the Cuban junior national team when he defected, his youth enhancing his stature as an untested prospect. Rolando Arrojo was an experienced, well-regarded talent when he fled Cuba prior to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but he had arm problems in the past. Contreras, say those who have followed his career, has been largely injury-free.
"He's polished," said Tommy Lasorda, once the Los Angeles Dodgers' longtime manager who now sits in the team's front office. "He can pitch in the major leagues right now with a great deal of success."
Miguel Valdes helped Cuba win 13 world championships and two Olympic gold medals, as a coach and technical director of the national team. He was asked last month to compare Contreras to Danys Baez, the Cleveland Indians pitcher from Pinar del Rio who signed a $14.5 million contract in1999 to set a record for Cuban defectors. Baez was the third-best pitcher on the Pinar team, behind Contreras and Pedro Luis Lazo.
"I would not compare him with the Cubans. I would compare him to the best pitchers you have (in the major leagues)," Valdes said, "with Randy Johnson, with Curt Schilling, with those players. Contreras is at that level."
Said Baez: "I believe (Contreras) has the talent to be the ace on any major-league team."
Anyone who saw Contreras mow down the Baltimore Orioles during an exhibition game in Cuba three years ago would be loath to disagree. In the first game against American professional players since Castro took over the island country, Contreras allowed just two hits in eight innings of relief. Cuba lost, 3-2, through no fault of Contreras. He came on in the second inning and struck out 10.
Contreras made a sage of Castro, who had long insisted that his team could play with American pros. Sitting behind home plate in Havana's signature facility, Estadio Latinoamericano, Castro was visibly inspired by the performance of the big right-hander, who struck out such veterans as Harold Baines, Will Clark, Mike Bordick and Albert Belle (twice).
After that day in March 1999, no one was more ready for Contreras than U.S. scouts. He became the most forbidden of fruit, arguably the world's best pitcher not under contract with a major-league team.
But to agents, Contreras also seemed to be the Cuban star least interested in defecting.
About a half-dozen agents trail the national team around the world in the hopes of identifying future clients. They work the lobbies and the dark hallways, getting to know the Cuban players as best as they can. Some players tease the agents, asking for cash and gifts despite no real intention of defecting. Others merely engage the agents in discussions about how much interest the major-league teams might have in their talents. Contreras fell into neither of those categories.
Even the agent who orchestrated his defection had all but given up hope of luring Contreras and his 98 mph fastball away from Cuba.
"He is very quiet," said Jaime Torres, a Miami-based agent and the attorney who is attempting to secure Contreras' free-agent status with Major League Baseball. "It's not that he was happy -- because very few of them are happy, honestly -- but you could sense (a disinterest in defecting). We have a saying in Spanish that is, 'You accept things,' and he came across to me as someone who has accepted his fate within the Cuban national team."
How right Torres was.
"Until that moment in Mexico," Contreras told ESPN.com, "I never once thought about leaving my team."
'Lo voy a hacer'
"I think I have an infinite number of reasons to keep playing here in Cuba," Contreras said before the game.
Contreras did not shift in his chair when answering questions about why he had never defected. His dark brown eyes looked straight ahead and his hands rested calmly on his knees, suggesting no lack of sincerity. He exuded far less an air of mystery than El Duque, who has long been hard to read. Cuban officials trusted El Duque's declarations of loyalty so little they suspended him from baseball even though he had never attempted to defect. But Contreras was given a lengthy leash.
"I come from a humble family," Contreras said at the time. "I think I owe this to the Revolution. It's helped me. I've been world champion, Olympic champion and Central American champion, thanks to the Revolution. That's why I'm here. I owe this."
Contreras' father cut sugar cane in the years leading up to Castro's socialist Revolution. He worked the fields in the morning, and in the afternoon played baseball for the plantation's amateur team. Back then, professional baseball was largely confined to the big cities like Havana and opportunities for black players, even in Cuba, were limited.
Jose Contreras would grow up in a Castro-inspired sports system that, while resisting the label of professional, allowed room for full-time baseball players. And those athletes played in new baseball stadiums that towered over the urban landscape in places like Pinar del Rio, where the region's best talent was on display.
Unlike in the major leagues, players in the Cuban league usually represent the communities in which they grew up. The vast majority will never be traded -- a feature Contreras seemed to appreciate as a matter of personal dignity. "Besides the roots I've put down in this country, I won't let anyone treat me like a piece of merchandise," he said, "like something they can buy today and sell to someone else tomorrow."
And then he was gone, as hard to find as the bones of Che Guevara once were.
What happened was, Contreras found himself alone in a hotel room. With his dreams.
On the morning of the Guatemala game last month, Contreras said, he woke up with a pain in his hip. Figuring that Cuba would have no problem drumming the lightweight opponent, the coaches allowed him to stay back at the team hotel in Saltillo, Mexico. In the solitude of that room, with the whole Cuban delegation across town at the tournament, major-league baseball never seemed so accessible, so near. As near as the U.S. border, little more than 125 miles away.
Contreras now concedes he was not being completely truthful when he said last year that he had no interest in playing in the majors. "OK, it's not really like that," he told ESPN.com last month. "But you must understand that in Cuba, there are some things that you cannot say because you'll get in trouble. I always wanted to play baseball professionally. But I had all of my family there and I think that family is the most important."
Contreras has a wife and two daughters, ages 10 and 2. His father, now a tobacco farmer, is 80 and his mother, a retired cigar-leaves selector, is 74. He knew that if he was successful in defecting, he might not see some of them ever again. Alternately, he knew that if caught defecting by either Cuban or Mexican authorities, he could be sent back to Cuba in shame, his career ruined.
"Lo voy a hacer!" he told the agent. I am going to do it.
Stunned, Torres asked if he was sure.
"Lo voy a hacer."
Torres came to the hotel, where they formulated their plan. To avoid detection, they split up with the expectation of meeting later at the Monterrey airport, an hour away by car.
When Contreras arrived at the airport, he was terrified to see who was standing next to Torres: Miguel Valdes, the man with 19 world championships, the famed technical director who had basically run the Cuban national team for more than a decade.
"I told myself, 'Oh, no, they might have set a trap for me,' " Contreras said.
But Valdes was no spy for Cuban security. He, too, was defecting, though he had no idea his star pitcher was coming along. Torres had not told Valdes or Contreras what the other was up to, in case something went wrong.
"I didn't know what he was doing there," Valdes said. "But then, your mind works very quickly. I realized that we were so far away from where we were supposed to be that the only possible explanation was that Jose was there to meet the agent."
Had they been caught, they would have been subject to Mexico's repatriation agreement with Cuba and returned to Cuban authorities, Torres said. Once they calmed down, the coach and star pitcher flew to Tijuana and walked across the Mexican border, where immigration officials allowed them entry into the United States.
Word of Contreras' arrival traveled quickly to Major League Baseball teams, who wasted little time to express their interest in Contreras. Fans back in Cuba soon heard about his departure after the government issued a terse statement acknowledging that the pitcher had "deserted" the team.
One young fan in Havana, among several stopped on the street by a correspondent representing ESPN after Contreras' defection, said he was baffled. Contreras, he said, seemed to have it all in Cuba, where baseball players get cars and other small luxuries that most citizens will never enjoy.
"Forget Cuban baseball," said Joe Kehoskie, an agent who specializes in Cuban defectors. "Cuba is reeling from the Contreras defection, from top government officials to people on the streets."
A league of his own
In late October, Cuba's sports federation announced it would pull its teams out of the upcoming Central American and Caribbean Games in El Salvador, slated to begin in late November. Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban government, cited concerns about the safety of Cuban athletes in a country which Castro alleged has catered to the "Miami mafia" of anti-Castro exiles who for four decades have been pushing for regime change.
But the timing of the announcement, so close to the start of the games, has agents convinced that Contreras' defection played a role in the decision.
"I strongly suspect fear of further defections is at the heart of Cuba's sudden decision to withdraw from the CAC Games," Kehoskie said. "Defections tend to happen in waves, and if one of Cuba's top baseball players -- a longtime loyalist -- decided it was time to leave, who knows how many of Cuba's 500-member CAC Games delegation would have reached the same conclusion."
A subsequent news report from outside Cuba speculated that the abrupt pullout might have been related to a lack of funds to send the athletes to El Salvador.
No matter the reason, none of it would seem to bode well for Cuban sports as envisioned by Castro. In an era when even a communist power like China has embraced pro sports and the marketplace, Cuban baseball, in particular, seems increasingly out of step with the rest of the world. The tickets in Pinar may be 5 cents, but even as Contreras pitched in the National Series finals last year, a quarter of the stadium seats were unfilled. The players may like playing for their hometown team, but television, the Internet and the grapevine are making them more aware of what they're missing in the majors.
"I'm sad when any great Cuban player leaves, even though I'm happy for Contreras if that's what he wants," said Peter Bjarkman, co-author of "Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball." "Cuban baseball is a special institution -- everything Major League Baseball is not. It's an affordable and attractive game that's being lost."
Bjarkman likens the current state of the Cuban league to the Negro leagues in the U.S. in the 1930s and '40s, an antiquated, though socially important, community resource. And Contreras has the chance to be if not Cuba's Jackie Robinson, then its Satchel Paige, whose belated arrival to the majors signaled the eventual collapse of the Negro leagues.
So far, the several dozen players who have defected from Cuba represent no more than a small fraction of the prospects capable of getting a good look from major-league teams.
"As the economic situation gets worse in Cuba, more players will defect," Bjarkman said. "But the bigger impact will come if Contreras does well in the majors. He has a chance to do better than Livan and El Duque, and if that happens, that will draw even more of the best talent out of Cuba."
Contreras knows that all of the island, and probably its leader, will be watching.
"My friends and my teammates, maybe some of them will say I betrayed them," Contreras said. "But they know me and they should not take me as a traitor but as someone who took the opportunity to play baseball at another level.
"Anytime I go out onto the field here, it will be for my friends, myself and the Cuban people."
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.