White Sox pitcher Jose Contreras is a man with a story made for television.
The man escaped communist Cuba without his family to play for the Yankees, then he escaped from New York for the Windy City via trade. Early struggles raised questions about his ability, but he eventually worked himself back into form. He now heads into his Tuesday start in the American League Championship Series as the White Sox ace.
Is it any wonder Contreras’ favorite pastime is watching Spanish soap operas with teammates Orlando Hernandez and Freddy Garcia? Drama, living it or watching it, is second nature to Contreras. Baseball? That’s the easy part to him. All you do is pitch.
“I had the luck of playing in Cuba for eight years,” Contreras, 33, said. “I played in the Olympics, the national team in all kinds of situations. That helped me handle the pressure of playing in important games. That’s not hard.”
In his last appearance, Contreras allowed eight hits and two runs in 7 2/3 innings against the Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. He struck out six and did not walk a batter.
“What I tell the young guys on the team is to stay calm and take it one game at a time,” Contreras said. “We win eight games and we are champions. We can do it if we play like we are capable of. You get nervous and bad things can happen.”
Contreras knows of what he speaks. The right-hander went 15-7 with a 3.61 ERA for the White Sox in 2005, establishing career highs in victories, starts (32) and innings (204 2/3).
“This kid came in with a lot of problems—mechanics and tipping his pitches—but I always say Contreras got the best arm in my staff,” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. “There’s not a doubt about it. It was a matter of time [before] he got more confidence, he was throwing more strikes. He’s around the plate, making those people swing the bat.”
Contreras ended the season with a career-high eight game winning streak, posting a 2.09 ERA during that span. His success carried over into the postseason.
“He’s been in situations where, if the team wins, that’s the most important thing in the country,” Guillen said. “He is cool under pressure. That’s the best thing for him and for the team.”
Contreras played seven years with the Cuban national team, compiling a 117-50 record with a 2.82 ERA in Cuban League play. Named Cuba’s Male Athlete of the Year three times, he defected from his country in October 2002 during the Americas Series in Mexico.
In his first season with the Yankees, Contreras went 7-2 with a 2.78 ERA in 18 games. In 2004, he posted a 8-5 record and a 5.64 ERA for New York before being traded to Chicago, where he went 5-4 with a 5.30 ERA to finish the season.
Contreras was reunited with the family he left behind in Cuba shortly before he was traded to the White Sox.
“Think about how you would feel if your wife and family were in another country, being held hostage,” White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. “It wouldn’t be good for you. I bet you couldn’t do your job quite as well as you would like.”
Contreras doesn’t have to worry about missing his family anymore, and he’s surely not going to let pitching in the ALCS make him nervous.
Missing his favorite television shows? That’s something else altogether. Contreras sometimes plans his workouts around watching the season-long telenovelas, and refuses to start watching a new series because he is certain he is going to miss an episode or two—which is unacceptable.
“They are the best,” Contreras said. “They are a great escape, just incredible. I get so involved that it’s almost like I am going to cry with those characters.”
Now, that’s drama.
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.