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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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."