José Contreras’ journey to the major leagues began with a broken-down Peugeot in Havana. A blue one, to be exact. A gift from Fidel Castro himself for Contreras’ loyalty to the regime and his prowess on the mound.
Needing to fix his four-door sedan for a two-hour drive home to the rural town of Las Martinas in Pinar del Río back in 2002, Contreras went to see Humberto Rodríguez González, then the president of the Cuban sports federation, known in Spanish by its acronym, INDER.
Contreras’ distress was palpable. The mechanics wanted payment in U.S. dollars. More than $400.
The pitching ace got a resounding “No.” In so many words, Rodríguez González told Contreras to take a hike.
Contreras stormed out of the office, vowing never to return. A month or so later, during a tournament in Saltillo, Mexico, he walked out on the team, his country and his family. He drove to neighboring Monterrey, flew to Tijuana and waited for instructions from his soon-to-be agent, Jaime Torres.
“I spent a whole month hiding in a hotel because they were looking for me. Fidel was offering a reward for my return to Cuba, and I was very scared,” Contreras said.
Desperate times, desperate measures
It’s a story that Contreras has been telling since he defected in November 2002. But when the Chicago White Sox’s new ambassador, a star on the team’s 2005 championship season, talked in Spanish to the La Vida Baseball during SoxFest in late January, he added details not commonly known, such as how he dressed as a woman — wig and all — as he prepared to cross the border to San Diego.
“I was with a friend who was going to help me cross. I’m 6-foot-4. He found me a blond wig and some women’s heels this high,” Contreras said, holding his hands six inches apart.
“I got dressed and when I looked in the mirror, I told him, ‘Who would think that there’s a black blonde this tall?’ I took everything off, and that’s how I crossed the border,” he added while chuckling. “I laugh about it now, but in that moment, it was something difficult, very difficult. I didn’t know what would happen to me. I didn’t know if I was making the right decision. Thank God all came out well.”
It sure did. After spending about a week in an immigration detention center, Contreras was granted asylum. A couple months later, he signed a four-year, $32 million contract with the New York Yankees, starting his major league career at age 31.
Pitching for five teams over 11 seasons, including that successful stint with the White Sox, Contreras went 78-67 with a 4.57 ERA. Besides winning the 2005 World Series, he earned one All-Star selection — and more than $67 million.
The toughest decision
The unpleasant encounter with the president of INDER may have prompted Contreras to desert, but that decision, for any Cuban player, is never simple and rarely spontaneous. For those who never left, there wasn’t enough money in the world to soothe the tears of separation, the pain of loneliness and the fear of the unknown.
“It’s very, very hard. Not so much defecting, but making the decision,” Contreras said. “I’m the youngest of nine boys. My father was an old man, and I knew that when I left Cuba, it would be very hard on him.
“A year and half later, my dad died. I attended his wake over the telephone. When people say, ‘There’s so much talent in Cuba. Why don’t they leave?’ — I think that one of the main reasons is being separated from your family. My then-wife and my two daughters were back in Cuba. I didn’t see them for two years.
“And to play baseball, you have to be 100 percent focused — 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. If you have problems at home, if you have problems with your family, it’s very difficult to give 100 percent on the field.”
Contreras’ father Florentino had been a fervent believer in Castro and the revolution. In his 80s when he died, he was the indomitable patriarch of the family. Contreras confessed that he feared even having a phone conversation with his dad after he left Cuba.
A dad’s cautionary words
“At first, he didn’t understand,” Contreras said. “He told me, ‘I raised nine little boys and you are the youngest. I raised you all equally; you made this decision. All I want is that you be an honest man, and if I find out that you are doing bad things, I’m going to come get you and grab you by your hair.’
“It was a big burden on my shoulders. I thought that he would reprimand me.
“After three months, I talked to him [again] and he told me, ‘Now I understand. Thank you for opening my eyes and that of my whole family.’
“He understood the circumstances. I told him, ‘It’s not a political issue — I just want to play baseball, baseball at the highest level. An artist wants to play on the biggest stage. A ballplayer wants to play the best baseball, and the best baseball is here in the United States.’ The Japanese play here, the Dominicans, the Venezuelans — and they can all go home afterwards. We [Cubans] are the only ones who can’t do that.”
Though he was taught to throw by his father, growing up Contreras preferred volleyball. He played pelota in the backyard or in the street with friends and neighbors, frequently “barefoot and shirtless,” Contreras said.
“That’s how kids play in Cuba. Well, I wasn’t a kid, but that’s how we played,” he said.
If the timeline is to be believed, Contreras was close to 19 when he was “discovered” in a sandlot game by Jesús Guerra, then the director of Pinar del Río’s state-run sports academy.
“They hit a line drive over third, I grabbed the ball, threw to first,” Contreras said. “He said, ‘Come with me to the academy to play baseball.’ I told him, ‘No, no, no, no, I like volleyball.’ ‘Why volleyball? You can pitch. You got a good arm,’ he said. I told him, ‘I’ve never pitched.’ He said, ‘I’ll take of that. I’ll teach you.’”
Shortly after enrolling in the academy, Contreras signed with the Vegueros de Pinar del Río, the local team in the Serie Nacional, Cuba’s baseball league. That same year, he got promoted to the country’s U-23 team.
Contreras went on to become one of the best pitchers of Cuba’s post-revolutionary era, so good that Castro nicknamed him El titán de bronce — “The Bronze Titan.” A large right-hander with a deceptive delivery, he threw five different pitches from different angles, finishing you off with a devastating forkball.
Contreras helped his country win Olympic gold in 1996, along with world championships and other international competitions. He proved his mettle to major league scouts by throwing eight shutout innings in relief against the Baltimore Orioles during the historic 1999 exhibition game held in Havana.
A baseball history lesson
The irony of all this was that while the outside world knew about El titán de bronce, Contreras said that he knew little about baseball outside Cuba or even about the Cuban major leaguers who stayed in the States after Castro came to power, legends like Minnie Miñoso, Luis Tiant and Hall of Famer Tony Pérez.
“It was a crime to watch professional baseball,” Contreras said. “I learned about them when I got here in 2002.”
When Contreras got to the World Series with the White Sox, he sent one of his brothers a battery-operated radio so the family could follow the games live.
“Up in the hill, more than 60 people [gathered], that’s how they kept track of how I was doing,” Contreras.
After Cuba liberalized its travel laws in early 2013, Contreras became the first star athlete to return. That year was his final season in the major leagues, when he played briefly for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He extended his career three more years in Mexico, last pitching in 2016 for the Triple-A Tigres de Quintana Roo, a club in Cancún now owned by Fernando Valenzuela.
Now an ambassador
By accepting the position of ambassador with the White Sox, Contreras is embracing the next phase of his life. Last year, he taught Little League players in Fort Myers, Fla., how to pitch. With the White Sox, he might be able to help first baseman José Abreu mentor the new generation of Cuban players on the team, including Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert.
He could certainly contribute, considering his experience. More than 15 years later, Contreras still vividly remembers his first months in the States.
“There are no McDonald’s in Cuba, and I was crazy about getting to the United States and tasting McDonald’s. That was the first thing I learned,” Contreras said laughing. “But it wasn’t that hard because you pronounce it the same way.
“A big piece of advice for Latinos, especially for the Cubans, is to learn English. It will make life easier with the team, with your teammates, on the bus, on the plane,” Contreras added.
“I remember when I got to the Yankees, I had Roger Clemens on one side and Mariano Rivera on the other. I said, ‘Oh my god.’ I would look at them and say, ‘I don’t believe I’m next to these two studs. I would stick my head into my locker so they wouldn’t to talk to me, especially Clemens. That was 15 years ago and I still don’t speak English well, so you can image 15 years ago.”
Featured Image: John Williamson / Getty Images Sport
Inset Image: Roberto Schmidt / AFP