BY ALBOR RUIZ | New York Daily News
PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba - (KRT) - In the whirlwind 20 months since he defected from Cuba, Yankees pitcher Jose Contreras has had a roller-coaster ride through the major leagues and become rich beyond his wildest dreams.
But for the wife and daughters Contreras left behind in the quaint but crumbling colonial town of Pinar del Rio, time has stood still.
Miriam Murillo-Flores says she has spoken by telephone with her famous husband just about every day since he left Cuba on Oct. 25, 2002.
She said he shares his triumphs with her and confides his fears. She said they ache for each other and do not know when Cuba’s Communist government will let her see him again.
It has been like this ever since Contreras, 32, flew off to play baseball in Mexico and did not come back. The Yankees signed him to a four-year, $32 million contract last year.
Twice, she said, Cuban officials have denied her permission to leave. They are still embarrassed and angry that one of their brightest baseball hopes ran when he got the chance.
“I had an interview with the immigration authorities in Havana on April 27 and they told me I had to wait five years, until people had forgotten about Jose,” she told the Daily News. “This has nothing to do with politics. I am just a housewife trying to get her family back together. But now I - and the children - have to pay for what he did.”
Murillo-Flores, who married Contreras when she was 15 and he 16, said she never dreamed they would ever be separated.
“You know, it is like Jose always tells me, marriage was made to be together,” she said.
While Contreras won his last start against Baltimore last Thursday, Murillo-Flores says the separation has taken a toll on her husband’s psyche - and has affected his pitching. Contreras was ineffective at the start of the season and was sent to the minors to work out his troubles under the tutelage of pitching guru Billy Connors. He returned to the Yankees two weeks ago.
“Some days, when we speak, Jose sounds so sad that I get really worried and try to cheer him up,” she said. “I tell him, ‘We have to be patient, things are going to work out.’ “
Contreras’ bouts of depression, Murillo-Flores insisted, “only last a couple of days.” But they have become more frequent as he has struggled to make his mark in the majors, where he has posted an overall record of 9-4 with a 4.41 earned run average.
“One day last week I called him and he sounded really down,” she said. “I asked him what was wrong and he said, ‘Nothing, I’m just tired.’ But I knew it wasn’t true. That made me really sad.”
“Sometimes I call him a little after 9 p.m. and he is already sleeping. I tell him, ‘How come you are in bed so early?’ and he says, ‘I have nothing to do.’ “
Contreras declined to discuss his family situation with The Daily News, but he recently told a friend, “Every day, I miss Cuba. Sometimes, I wish I was back there.”
Murillo-Flores is convinced Contreras will return to the form that made him a national hero in baseball-crazy Cuba when he lead the national team to victory over the visiting Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition game in 1999.
“He is very dedicated, very hardworking, very responsible,” she said. “He puts a lot of effort into everything he does. While he was in Cuba, the first thing for him was training.”
A tall and attractive woman of 31, Murillo-Flores has an easy smile and sad, brown eyes. She is stylish in jeans and a summery blouse.
By Cuban standards, she is well-off and drives a blue Peugeot that the government gave her husband as a reward. But home for her and Contreras’ daughters, Naylan, 11, and Naylenis, 3, is a two-bedroom apartment in a rundown government-owned building on the outskirts of town.
She opted to do the interview in the sunny, plant-filled lobby of the small Pinar del Rio hotel.
“I just came back from Havana, where I spent three days,” she explained. “And I haven’t had time to tidy up.”
Murillo-Flores said she met Contreras in school, when they were both studying to be veterinary technicians. “He even didn’t think of becoming a baseball player,” she said.
But Contreras was destined to shine on the baseball diamond. And as his star rose, he dreamed of providing a better life for his family.
“We lived seven years with his parents and then six years at a place similar to the one I live now, in the municipality of Sandino, almost at the end of the island, where Jose was born,” she said.
Contreras’ 83-year-old father and his 68-year-old mother still live there.
“We had been asking for a house, we wanted a place of our own,” Murillo-Flores added. “We were finally given a house in the city of Pinar del Rio but it needed a lot of repairs and we waited and waited for over two years. In the meantime we moved to the building where I live now.”
Politics, Murillo-Flores said, never figured in Contreras’ decision to defect from Cuba.
“Jose told me, ‘Miriam, you know that my dream was to play in the Major Leagues, but if we had had our own house, for us and the girls to be together as a family, I would’ve been there with you. But I had to do something to guarantee the future of my family.’ “
Despite his ups and downs as a Yankees pitcher, Contreras remains very popular in Cuba, where people follow his every move. Murillo-Flores said she takes much comfort in that.
“I never imagined that so many people knew Jose, followed his career and loved him,” she said. “There is no way I can tell him on the phone about all the people who ask me to say hello to him, who wish him luck. They are too many! It makes me very proud.”
Still, the separation is hard - especially on their daughters.
“We talk every day and Naylenis tells him, ‘Daddy, take me with you,’ ” Murillo-Flores said. “She misses her father very much. He used to give her dinner every evening when he wasn’t playing and he would help Naylan with her homework.”
With each passing day, it seems to get harder for the girls, Murillo-Flores said.
“They cry a lot for their father,” she said. “They want to be with their dad. Naylan tells me that she is tired of going to school all by herself, without her dad. And the little one asks him on the phone, ‘Daddy, when are you coming home?’ “
A few weeks ago, Murillo-Flores said, her husband described the home he bought for them in Tampa. He told her about the beautiful apartment that he bought for them in New York. He told her he wishes they could live together again as a family, but she spent their 16th wedding anniversary last Friday alone with the kids.
Asked how she manages, Murillo-Flores shrugged.
“You know, I miss him all the time,” she said. “Yes, he sends me money and that helps. But I want to be with him. We are like one person. There are so many things I want to tell him, so many things I can’t talk to anybody else about. Now I am alone. I have no one I can really speak with. The situation makes me feel desperate.”
Does she have any regrets?
Murillo-Flores shook her head no.
“I am his wife and I am behind him all the way. I support the decisions he makes,” she said. But she admits she is tired of not knowing when she will see her husband again.
“I used to have an upbeat, happy personality, but I am very bitter now,” she said. “I am even taking medication for depression. Hope? Sure I have hope. That’s the last thing you lose.”
Then, almost in a whisper, she added, “At times I feel it is the only thing I have left. The truth is that I lose hope sometimes but I tell myself that I must have faith that things are going to get better.”
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