By Letta Tayler | LATIN AMERICAN CORRESPONDENT; Ken Davidoff contributed to this story | Newsday
Pinar del Rio, Cuba - Day and night, Myriam Contreras keeps her shiny new cell phone by her side. The blue Nokia has been her lifeline, the only contact with her husband since he defected from Cuba nearly 10 months ago to seek major-league fame and fortune.
“It’s been horrible since he left,” Myriam Contreras said of Jose Contreras, who dropped from sight in October and emerged as a pitcher with the Yankees. “I’m trying to be as supportive as I can. But sometimes I worry I’ll never see him again.”
Contreras, who got off to an uneven start with the Yankees and has been sidelined since June 10 with an injured right shoulder, faces enormous pressures as he adjusts to the major leagues and the task of living up to a four-year, $32-million contract. That is the highest sum yet for a Cuban baseball player and a mind-boggling increase from Contreras’ $275 annual salary in Cuba.
Contreras, who has been in Tampa rehabbing his injury, refused to comment for this story. He spoke about the separation from his family during spring training in Tampa, Fla.
“It’s very difficult,” he said during an interview in March. “I think the only time I don’t think about my family is when I’m on the mound. I have to focus on the job I have to do. Aside [from] my family, baseball is the biggest thing for me. That gives me a little time away from thinking about my family and allows me to focus on what I have to do.”
Back home in this tobacco-growing region of western Cuba, Contreras’ wife, two daughters and parents have their own worries.
In the drab apartment in the provincial capital of Pinar del Rio where Contreras’ wife and children live, his younger daughter, 2-year-old Nailenis, toddles around the tiny living room asking, “When will I see Daddy?”
Every night at bedtime, Nailenis and her older sister, Nailan, 10, kiss a photograph of their father in his old revolution-red Cuban national team uniform. “I miss playing volleyball with him,” said Nailan, a slender, bright-eyed girl who inherited her father’s height and long legs.
The pitcher’s father, Florentino, 81, and mother, Modesta, 66, are vegetable and tobacco farmers who live in Las Martinas, a tiny community 50 miles from Pinar del Rio along a narrow, potholed road. Florentino Contreras had a stroke in March. To check on his father’s condition, Contreras must call a neighbor, who must walk across a field to fetch his dad. The parents are out of cell range, and getting a phone involves mountains of red tape in communist Cuba.
“Jose’s father took his leaving really hard,” Myriam Contreras said.
For her part, Myriam Contreras worries about her husband’s shoulder, and about how the farmboy from one of the most rural areas of Cuba will react to the temptations of life in the fast lane.
Most of all, she worries that she and her daughters might not get visas to join her husband in the United States. Though Jose Contreras is working on the papers, the process is long and complicated, requiring the permission of both U.S. and Cuban authorities. If the visas don’t come through, “I don’t know what I’ll do,” she said.
A statuesque woman with almond eyes, a velvety voice and a warm smile, Myriam Contreras greeted a visitor on a recent day with gold chains draped around her neck and gold earrings dangling from her ears. Her husband wires funds regularly so she no longer has to think twice about buying red meat or soap - luxuries in Cuba - or even about taking her daughters to the beach for a week.
“I have plenty of money,” mused Myriam Contreras, who married her husband when she was 15 - half her lifetime ago. “But I pay the price with loneliness.”
One of the hardest things for Cuban baseball defectors is being away from their families or communities, particularly for someone like Contreras, one of nine children from a tight-knit family, according to Milton Jamail, who along with Larry Dierker authored “Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball.”
In Contreras’ case, there also is the fear that Cuban authorities “could make it difficult for his family to join him if they wanted to,” Jamail said. Moreover, Contreras may never again see Cuba. “Cuban defectors told me that’s something they don’t get over - the idea that they may never return home,” Jamail said.
Carlos Rodriguez, Cuba’s national director of baseball, said defectors are allowed back for visits “if they don’t speak negatively about Fidel Castro or Cuba or join the mafia or say life is difficult here.”
Baseball defectors are viewed as “traitors who abandoned their country,” Rodriguez said. “The people don’t pardon them.”
After Contreras left, down came the posters of him that had plastered bars and restaurants in Havana and Pinar del Rio. But many baseball fans said they continue to adore the powerful 6-4, 245-pound righthander, who was the country’s top pitcher until he skipped town Oct. 1 while playing for the Cuban national team in Mexico.
“He’s still the best,” exclaimed fan Livan Lescano, 29, an elevator operator, as he strolled the main street of Pinar del Rio - a city of crumbling, pastel-colored houses that’s so rural, most taxis are bicycle- or horse-drawn buggies. “We’re sorry he’s gone, but if I were him I’d have done the same.”
“For a baseball player to really show his skills to the world, he has to do what Contreras did,” said Roman Garcia, 52, one of many fans who gather daily at the “esquina caliente,” or “hot corner,” of Havana’s Central Park to discuss baseball.
Contreras, 31, whose fastball tops out in the mid 90s, was briefly sent to the minors in April after a rocky start with the Yankees. After returning, he pitched in only five games before injuring his shoulder. It is unclear when Contreras - who is 3-1 with a 4.62 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings - will return to the Yankees.
Despite their condemnation of Contreras, Cuban authorities have been kind to his family. They let his wife keep the blue Peugeot 400C sedan they gave her husband two years ago, around the same time they gave him a couple of bonuses - one of $2,000 and one of $5,000, Myriam Contreras thought - to supplement his monthly salary of 600 Cuban pesos, about $23.
The spacious house in Pinar del Rio that the government had promised Contreras, however, will go to some other player. Myriam Contreras said the family had pretty much given up on the house, anyway. They’d moved to the run-down two-bedroom apartment three years ago as an interim measure.
The apartment’s pale-blue paint job is so old that dirt streaks the walls. The ancient refrigerator in the tiny galley kitchen leaks. Chickens cluck and waddle along the shared front lawn, which faces a depot whose sputtering buses drown out conversation.
It’s not exactly the house Jose Contreras recently bought for more than $1 million in Tampa.
But it wasn’t the low wages or the house that prompted Contreras to leave, friends and relatives said.
“He wanted to go to the top,” said Roberto Crespo, 34, one of Contreras’ childhood friends. “Here, baseball is wonderful, but it’s only amateur.”
Baseball has been a national passion in Cuba since the 1860s, when U.S. sailors brought the game to this Caribbean island’s ports. On a recent day in Havana, crowds whistled, booed and cheered during the first of five playoffs between two provincial teams playing at the city’s baseball academy, acting as revved as U.S. fans during the bottom of the ninth in the final game of the World Series.
“Baseball is part of our culture; it’s part of our soul,” said spectator Antonio Amenare, 44, between howls and screams.
Cuba plays some of the best baseball in the world. But a country as poor as this simply can’t afford the training facilities of the U.S. major leagues. Nor can it match the offers of U.S. scouts who stalk Cuban players incessantly.
“If we could pay salaries of $10,000, the United States would offer $10 million. If we paid $10 million, the United States would offer $100 million,” Rodriguez said.
Even if it could pay a player $100 million, Cuba wouldn’t. That would grate against the government’s anti-capitalist philosophy. “We don’t believe in turning a player into merchandise,” Rodriguez said. “The Cuban player competes for his country and his people.”
Several players agreed.
“In Cuba, we play for love. We aren’t negotiable for dollars,” said Carlos Tabares Padilla, 29, a centerfielder for Industriales, one of Cuba’s leading teams. “If we were, many more players would have left.”
Among those who have defected to the U.S. are former Yankees pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and his half-brother Livan Hernandez, another pitcher who was the World Series MVP with the Florida Marlins in 1997.
For a decade with Pinar del Rio’s Level 1 team, Contreras appeared to embrace that philosophy. Though extremely reserved and somewhat of an outsider, he worshiped Cuban baseball, friends and relatives said.
Cuba’s sports industry, modeled on the system of the Soviet Union, its former benefactor, produces many of its stars at special boarding schools where children culled from around the country combine study with hours of daily athletic training.
Contreras didn’t enter that system until he was 18, when he was spotted by a trainer at a game in Las Martinas. Though his father had played baseball on a team sponsored by sugar mills, Contreras was studying to be a veterinarian.
“He never thought he’d be a famous baseball player. Everyone told him he had the talent but [he] didn’t believe it,” his friend Crespo said.
After a year at the Pinar del Rio baseball academy, Contreras rapidly worked his way up to the city’s Level 1 team. Three years after joining Pinar del Rio, he pitched for the Cuban national team.
During the past decade, Contreras was Cuba’s Male Athlete of the Year three times and won 117 of 167 decisions with a 2.82 earned run average in Cuban league play. In his last season in Cuba, he was 13-4 with a league-best 1.76 ERA.
He pitched eight shutout innings against the Orioles in a 1999 exhibition in Havana and beat the United States on one day’s rest in the championship of the Pan American Games that same year, striking out 13 in eight innings to help Cuba capture the gold, 5-1.
As Contreras’ fame increased, so did offers from U.S. scouts. But, according to Myriam Contreras, “he said he’d never accept one.”
She said she was “shocked” when she heard her husband had defected. “At first I thought it couldn’t be true,” she recalled. “But then he called me and said he didn’t want to hurt us, but that it was the best thing for him.”
She paused and smiled briefly. Then she stared at her cell phone, waiting for it to ring.
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