By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com
TAMPA, Fla.—A week and a half ago, a struggling 31-year-old rookie pitcher left the Yankees’ training camp in Tampa and drove across the causeway to watch his idol pitch.
When he climbed into that car, Jose Contreras had a spring-training ERA of 16.88. So no wonder he was looking for inspiration. And no one was more suited to provide it than a man who once had walked in Contreras’ spikes—Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez.
“He’s a great pitcher,” Contreras says of his Cuban countryman, El Duque. “But he’s a better person.”
Five months after his defection, six weeks after signing with the Yankees, Contreras watched El Duque throw three nearly perfect shutout innings for the Expos that day. And as Contreras watched, he could feel himself turning a very significant corner.
“I saw how relaxed and easy he was throwing,” Contreras says. “I’d been pitching with a lot of pressure, a lot of anxiousness. But to see how relaxed he was ... it was like he was playing a computer game.”
A few days after watching and visiting with El Duque, Contreras went out and pitched five overpowering innings against the Devil Rays. He allowed two hits, hit 96 mph on the radar guns and finally commanded his biting slider and dancing forkball.
Where he goes from here, no one knows yet. But if he turns into the top-of-the-rotation starter the Yankees envision him to be, he will do more than prove he was worth the 32 million American dolares the Yankees will pay him over the next four years:
More important, he will prove that Cuban pitchers as a whole can still be worth all the time and money that has been spent—and largely wasted—on them over the last decade.
Since 1993, when a Cuban pitcher named Rene Arocha defected and eventually reached the big leagues with the Cardinals, a dozen Cuban-born pitchers have pitched in the major leagues. They’re a combined nine games under .500.
But if you subtract El Duque, who is 53-38 lifetime, the other 11 are a combined 24 games below .500. And the only one in the group with a career ERA under 4.00 is Indians closer Danys Baez, at 3.96.
“At this point,” says Mike Arbuckle, the Phillies’ assistant GM for scouting and player development, “we’d have to think twice about making a large commitment to a Cuban pitcher, just because we’re concerned about the track record. Maybe El Duque was what he was advertised to be—at least in the short term. But by and large, none of these guys has reached the ceiling he was advertised to have.”
Oh, Livan Hernandez did have a spectacular October for the Marlins in 1997. Rolando Arrojo won 14 games for the 1998 Devil Rays and finished in the top 10 in the league in ERA. Ariel Prieto was once a No. 1 draft pick in Oakland. Baez and Florida’s Vladimir Nunez may still have a dominating future in short relief.
But in general, considering the dollars lavished on them all and the tantalizing mystique they brought with them across the seas, the Cubans have been one of baseball’s most monumental disappointments of modern times.
“I know we learned a big lesson in Oakland,” says Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi, a member of the Oakland braintrust in 1995 when the A’s decided to make Prieto the fifth player chosen in the entire amateur draft. “We all saw Prieto. We all loved him. He had a great arm. The ball came out of his hand real easy. We thought he’d pitch in the big leagues quick.
“But in hindsight,” Ricciardi says now, “I would have liked to have seen more of him and gotten more history on him. That’s always one of the problems in evaluating the Cubans. There are always questions about their history. As much as you think you know them because you’ve watched them, you really don’t know them—because you can’t.”
You can’t, because they come from a true land of mystery, where few Americans have traveled, where proof of age is nonexistent, where reputations have been built on years of beating up on inferior amateur competition.
“I think a mystique has developed around these guys,” Arbuckle says. “They’re coming from Cuba, this great and mysterious place that is supposed to have a mother lode of talent. And because of that, we’ve tended to overevaluate them. We’ve been seeing them compete on a daily basis against lesser-ability players. ... But you never know how a guy is going to react when he has to go, day-in and day-out, against guys with more ability than he has.”
We’ve surveyed a number of scouts and baseball men in recent weeks about the modern crop of Cuban pitchers. Most declined to be quoted. But their frustrations essentially come down to these areas:
1. Fictitious ages.
2. Inability to scout the Cubans against legitimate competition.
3. And, especially, an understandable lack of motivation to be great.
We are talking about men who have led their entire lives in an oppressed, dictatorial state. We are talking about men who had to survive on an income of as little as $10 a month. We are talking about men whose dreams of escaping Cuba revolve more around freedom than stardom.
“After spending their whole lives eating on $10 a month,” Arbuckle says, “a lot of these guys feel they’ve already reached the end of the rainbow just by getting here—to a situation where there are good meals on the table every day, a nice place to live and a little money in their pocket. It’s hard for them to comprehend that this is really just their starting point. When you’re coming from nothing, it’s easy for other things to become your priority.”
But Gordon Blakeley, the Yankees’ longtime director of international scouting, says the critics seem to be forgetting that priorities can be a problem for any player—no matter where he comes from.
“That’s a question you have to ask about anybody, even American players—who can you trust with a long-term contract?” Blakeley says. “It’s not only the Cubans. It’s human nature.”
Blakeley concedes that signing a Cuban can be “a gamble.” He agrees that the Cubans can be hard to scout, harder to get to know and a challenge to assemble any kind of reliable background on. But he disagrees with the premise that, as a group, these men never lived up to their hype.
“Most of these guys didn’t get much hype,” he says. “They weren’t thought to be that high-caliber. I thought Arrojo would pitch better than he has. I thought he’d do really well for three or four years. We had interest in Arrojo. But other than him, Livan and El Duque, none of the others were really interesing to us.”
Well, whatever the concerns might be about the other Cubans, Blakeley is convinced that the guy currently wearing Yankees pinstripes won’t disappoint anybody.
The Yankees have seen enough of him for years to be confident he’s really 31. They were lucky enough to watch him throw eight shutout innings against the Orioles in Cuba four years ago, so they’ve seen him against real major-league hitters. (No Orioles jokes, please.) And if his stuff wasn’t ace-type stuff, why were the Red Sox and Mariners working so hard this winter to keep him away from the Yankees?
So if another Cuban as talented as Jose Contreras were to reach the market, the Yankees would be right back in line, Blakeley says.
“We wouldn’t hesitate,” he says, “if it’s the kind of guy we like and he’s a fit. If you’ve done your homework and the guy has got talent, why would you hesitate? That’s what it’s all about, right? ... Talent.”
But of course, those other teams suggest, that’s easy for the Yankees to say.
“If you’re the Yankees and you have unlimited resources and the guy doesn’t turn out to be what you hoped, you just go on to the next guy,” Arbuckle says. “But most teams don’t have that luxury. Most teams have finite resources. ... So to make that kind of commitment in dollars and length of contract, that’s pretty risky business.”
And remember, no previous Cuban had ever gotten the kind of commitment or dollars that Jose Contreras just raked in. So as his career unfolds these next four years, he’ll be pitching for more than simply himself and that team in the Bronx. He might singlehandedly determine just how much Havana daydreaming the rest of baseball will feel like doing come manana.