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Posted October 22, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Sports

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Johnette Howard | SPORTS COLUMNIST | New York Newsday

Miami—When he stepped off the Yankees’ team plane here three days ago and saw the swaying palm trees, felt the familiar heat and humidity, the first thing Jose Contreras thought of was his home back in Cuba. When he stands on the beach here in South Florida and looks toward the horizon, Contreras says, he thinks how the family he left behind is out there somewhere, barely more than 100 miles away.

Sometimes I just stand on the beach and look at the water,” Contreras says, “and Cuba feels so close, it’s unbelievable. Sometimes I have a dream that I’m back together with everyone. Then I wake up and I’m still in bed by myself.”

Contreras was preparing for Game 3 of the World Series Tuesday night against the Florida Marlins as he spoke through an interpreter. The Yankees’ run to the World Series has been the highlight of his baseball life. And yet, the shift to Miami for three games has made an already roller-coaster year feel even more poignant to Contreras.

Contreras, 31, and his wife, Myriam, whom he married when he was 16, are able to talk by cell phone daily, but that’s all. Their daughters, Nailan, 10, and Nailenis, 3, kiss Jose’s picture each night before they go to bed. But they can’t get the hugs they ask him for.

The mere mention of them makes Contreras’ expressive face melt into a smile every time. But they haven’t seen Jose since he left to play a baseball tournament in Mexico with the Cuban National Team 13 months ago. When the tournament was over, he climbed into a waiting car provided by Jaime Torres, an agent who has represented many other Cuban ballplayers, and sought asylum, along with a Cuban baseball coach and the coach’s son.

Contreras never told anyone—not even his wife—about his plans to defect before he left. “I couldn’t,” he said with a wince. Now all of them have no idea when, if ever, they’ll be able to see each other again. Immigration attorneys are working on the case, Contreras says with a sigh.

But Contreras has given up hope that there will be some dramatic, made-for-TV reunion here between him and his family, same as there was here in 1997, when the mother of Cuban defector Livan Hernandez was allowed to visit Miami for the World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Marlins. Hernandez was a star of that World Series. Contreras began Game 3 still waiting to make his mark in this World Series.

“I was able to see those games that Livan played because someone brought videotapes of them back to Cuba,” Contreras said. “In Cuba, we all knew about Livan and his mother. We’re not allowed to have access to the games on TV. But people in Cuba find ways.”

They’re doing the same now to follow Contreras’ career: the heated bidding war his defection touched off last December between Boston and the Yankees; his struggles with his 81-year-old father’s failing health; arm trouble; his move from the Yankees’ starting rotation to the bullpen to the minors, then back to the Yankees’ bullpen again, where he’s carved out an important role, if only in the past month, as a setup man to Mariano Rivera.

Thanks to a Cuban-American radio station in Miami, Contreras’ family—his eight siblings, his father, his 66-year-old mother and his daughters—have been able to listen to the Yankees’ World Series games. A few people he knows in Cuba also have satellite TV, so Contreras’ family has seen him in some of the Yankees’ games, too.

He laughs softly now. It’s the thought of his daughters again.

“My daughters, they ask my wife, ‘Why doesn’t Daddy say hello to us when he’s on TV?’” said Contreras, who says the only time he doesn’t think of his family and Cuba is when he’s on the baseball field.

He’s grateful to his Yankees teammates “for being my second family.” Rivera said early in the season that he and other Yankees made a point of looking after Contreras “just so he doesn’t have too much time to think.”

But Contreras is nothing if not a thoughtful, soulful man. At 6-4, 230 pounds, with a 95-mph fastball, he looks imposing. “But inside,” said his Yankees interpreter, Leo Astacio, “Jose is a teddy bear.”

Contreras, who was 7-2 with a 3.30 ERA in the regular season, says getting to the World Series with the Yankees in his first year has been beyond anything he imagined. His four-year, $32-million contract is almost beyond comprehension compared with the $24 a month he made in Cuba. He says the fact that he can wire some money home to his extended family is some small consolation.

“They’re all happy, all comfortable,” Contreras said.

He shrugs again.

“The only thing they don’t have is me.”


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