By RICK FREEMAN | AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK - Jose Contreras woke up Friday morning to the gentle touch of his daughter’s little hands.
He was back in his New Jersey apartment, the same one in which he used to wake up alone and cry in the dark. But it was morning now, and here she was along with her big sister and his wife.
“It was what I had dreamed about for years,” the Yankees pitcher said Friday through an interpreter. “She tapped me and there was one big smile on my face.”
Life has been one big happy ending for Contreras ever since he reunited with his wife, Miriam Murillo, and daughters Naylan, 11, and Naylenis, 3, in Miami on Tuesday night.
The three of them were part of a group of 21 Cubans that left the island on Sunday night, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. They were captured on Florida’s Big Pine Key early Monday morning and by Tuesday night, Contreras was with them in a Miami Beach hotel.
And now they’ll get to watch him start Saturday against the New York Mets (news). It will be the first time they get to be there for him in the big leagues.
“I’m super happy,” Contreras said. “I don’t have the words to describe how I feel.”
Far too often over the past two years, Contreras would wake up half asleep thinking that he would find Miriam beside him. Or one of his daughters.
He was crushed to keep finding it empty.
“They wouldn’t be there and I would start to cry because I was by myself,” Contreras said.
Contreras has found himself under a cloud of uncertainty since he defected in October, 2002, and it appeared to affect his pitching at times. He struggled with his command earlier this season, and was sent to the minors from May 4-22 to work on it.
He had a similar trip to the Yankees’ complex in Tampa last season, too. He’s won three of his five starts since returning to the big club. But Contreras, a former star on the Cuban national team, has yet to show the sustained brilliance the Yankees thought him capable of when they signed him to a four-year, $32 million contract.
That could change now.
“I think we’ll see a different Jose Contreras,” Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said. “He’ll be much more relaxed now.”
Contreras thinks so, too.
“I think I’m going to be a lot more relaxed, a lot more tranquil now,” Contreras said.
In between the reunion and all the press conferences this week, Contreras made sure to keep up a semblance of his usual between-starts throwing routine. He has pronounced himself ready to go Saturday, and if he’s a little distracted this time, it would be understandable.
“I think I’m curious like everybody else,” manager Joe Torre said. “Hopefully, it’s given him something else to think about. With everything he’s dealt with pitching-wise this year, maybe he’s spent a little bit too to much time thinking, and this certainly would distract him from that. And that may be a good thing.”
In the past, the Yankees were vexed by Contreras’ struggles on the mound, and sympathetic to his ones off the field. But the biggest doubts belonged to Contreras himself.
“This just confirms that I made the right decision,” Contreras said. “I’m reunited with my family, and I’m here in America playing the best baseball in the world and I feel that now it’s complete.”
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