October 28, 2005

Cuba still in thoughts of Sox hurlers Contreras, Hernandez

By Jorge L. Ortiz, USA Today, October 28, 2005.

HOUSTON - Amid champagne showers in a jubilant Chicago White Sox clubhouse, Jose Contreras finally relinquished thoughts of his native land, if only for a brief while.

The White Sox had just won their first World Series since 1917, a title that helped vindicate Contreras, labeled an expensive bust just the year before in New York.

The big right-hander had won Game 1 of the eventual sweep of the Houston Astros, and as he joined in the boisterous celebration inside Minute Maid Park on Wednesday night, he let go of the homesickness that has been a consistent companion since he defected from Cuba three years and a day earlier.

Contreras' wife and children joined him in the USA in 2004, but his mother and eight siblings remain. Wednesday's championship celebration helped ease the longing for home.

"This is one of the few times when I haven't missed Cuba," Contreras said in Spanish seconds after being doused by a teammate. "I know after this I'm going to feel a little sad because my family hasn't been able to share this victory with me, but later I'll talk to them on the phone and they'll enjoy it, too."

A few feet away, countryman Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez was partaking in a rite that has been sweetly familiar to him since his own defection in December 1997.

Hernandez has enjoyed the fruits of freedom longer than Contreras, having earned three World Series rings with the New York Yankees, and usually he doesn't publicly yearn for what he left behind.

As the bubbly dripped down his face, though, he acknowledged nothing quite replaces his old homeland.

"We'll always think about Cuba; it's our country," Hernandez said, "and today they must have been watching the game. But this is where we make our living now."

They do it as world champions, in part because they have rejoined forces.

After two years of unfulfilled promise, Contreras became one of the best starters in the American League in the second half of this season, going 11-2 with a 2.96 ERA to finish at 15-7, 3.61.

The extended hot spell earned him the starting nod in the opener of the league's division and championship series, as well as last Saturday's Game 1 of the World Series. He responded by winning three of four decisions with a 3.09 ERA in the postseason.

"I have faith in him and made him believe we trust him," manager Ozzie Guillen said. "He was so insecure."

Guillen said the White Sox signed Hernandez last December partly as a mentor to Contreras. The two pitchers knew each other from the years when Hernandez played for Industriales and Contreras for Pinar del Rio in the Cuban league, as well as their time together on the national team.

Their reunion in New York, where Contreras signed two months after defecting in Mexico, was short-lived. Hernandez missed the entire 2003 season, Contreras' first in pinstripes, with a shoulder injury that didn't allow him to return to the Yankees until July 11, 2004. Three weeks later Contreras was traded to the White Sox for right-hander Esteban Loaiza.

"We've become better friends here because we didn't spend that much time together in New York," said Hernandez, a reliever for the White Sox in the playoffs.

More comfortable in Chicago

White Sox backup catcher Chris Widger played for the Yankees in 2002 and spent spring training with them in 2003. Widger said he hasn't noticed a difference in Contreras' stuff. His mind-set and the circumstances surrounding him, however, have changed drastically.

Concern for his nuclear family have been removed. Wife Miriam and daughters Naylan and Naylenis, 12 and 4, joined him in June 2004, reaching Big Pine Key, Fla., on a 30-foot speedboat along with 22 other refugees. After spending 21 months apart, the family settled in Tampa.

Contreras, who grew up in the countryside, never felt comfortable in New York. He went 15-7 overall in his 1½ seasons there, but his 4.64 ERA and repeated struggles against the Red Sox were not what Yankees owner George Steinbrenner envisioned when he outbid Boston for his services, signing him to a four-year, $32 million deal in December 2002.

Enter Hernandez. El Duque doesn't have the zing in his arm from his days as a fixture with the Yankees, but he brings expertise and moxie to the mound.

Moreover, he brought a piece of Cuba into the White Sox clubhouse, helping Contreras find a comfort zone. Their lockers are side by side, much like the two pitchers on team trips.

"I've seen (Contreras) happier, more comfortable with himself, in the clubhouse especially," said Ozzie Guillen Jr., the manager's 21-year-old son, who interprets for both pitchers and frequently joins them for dinner on the road. "At first he was a little shy, didn't say much. But now him and Duque are always together."

Pitching coach Don Cooper promptly points to Hernandez as the one who suggested Contreras drop his pitching motion from overhand to three-quarters or even sidearm, as he threw in Cuba.

The result of the mechanical and mental adjustments were a more aggressive pitcher, one willing to trust his mid-90s fastball and nefarious splitter. In the second half of the season Contreras' strikeouts-to-walks ratio went from 1.5-to-1 to 3-to-1.

"Because he threw like that in Cuba, Duque said, 'Hey, let's go back to being a Cuban pitcher,' " Cooper said. "Duque has been in the middle of the whole thing since Day 1 this season. Pitch selection, arm angle, how he'd pitch to a guy, what he knows about the guy. It's been big.

"Who else could relate totally to what Contreras is about? El Duque. They both escaped. One floated over, one flew over. There's a trust there that's great for him."

And it allowed Contreras' jovial personality to come out. At 6-4 and 245 pounds, with a large, shaved head, Contreras has an intimidating presence. But he's so jocular that Hernandez compares him to Cuban comedian Guillermo Alvarez Guedes, known through Latin America for his biting humor.

"You never see him in a bad mood," said Freddy Garcia, a native of Venezuela who won Wednesday's clincher. "People think he's shy, but you just have to speak Spanish to know what kind of person he is."

Castro bestows nickname

Contreras remembers throwing 172 pitches in a 1997 game against Japan. Two years later, he pitched seven innings in a Saturday game and eight Monday as Cuba earned the gold medal in the Pan Am Games in Canada.

After that performance, Cuban President Fidel Castro nicknamed him "El Titan de Bronce" (the Bronze Titan), a reference to a 19th century Cuban rebel leader.

The majority of Contreras' relatives remain in Cuba - his mother, eight siblings and several nieces and nephews - but at least now he has a support system both at the ballpark and at home.

"I feel like I'm back with my team in Pinar del Rio," said Contreras, who is listed as 33. "I'm comfortable with my teammates. I'm at ease, pitching my game."

The hard part for many Cuban players comes after the season. Most of the other Latino players go back to their home countries; Cuban exiles don't have that option.

They accept that as the price of freedom and the chance to seek fortune in America, some more reluctantly than others.

Guillen Jr. says the two Cuban pals frequently talk about their days on the island and have expressed some jealousy about other players' ability to return home.

"I know Contreras would give anything to go back for at least three days," Guillen Jr. says.

Absent that possibility, Contreras comforts himself in knowing his relatives listened to the World Series on the radio. And even though they probably weren't able to watch the games, they're always cognizant of how he and his team performed by the time he makes his daily call.

The Bronze Titan - a moniker he uses in the greeting for his cellphone voicemail - finds his escape on the mound.

"I miss everything about Cuba," he said. "I've dreamt about schoolmates of mine from when I was 5 years old. Everything - the food, my family, the neighborhood.

"What gets my mind off Cuba is baseball. Once I'm on the mound or I'm getting ready, there's nothing else in my mind besides baseball. I think if I weren't playing baseball I'd go crazy."



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