BY LAWRENCE ROCCA | Star-Ledger Staff
It’s not hard to believe Jose Contreras when he says his shaky start with the Yankees has nothing to do with shaky nerves.
“I’m not nervous,” said Contreras, who had a 19.29 ERA after two outings. “Games here don’t make me nervous. When we had big games to play in Cuba, the directors of the team would come around and say, ‘You have to win, you have to win.’ I’d always say, ‘Don’t talk to me. I have enough pressure as it is.’”
Most of that pressure was the burden of expectation placed on Team Cuba by the fans, from the least to most important.
“When we won big games, Fidel (Castro) would be at the airport waiting for us, greeting all the players and celebrating with us,” Contreras said. “When you lost a big game in Cuba, Fidel was never there. The people in the streets were different. They wouldn’t look at you. You wouldn’t get money for food. That’s pressure.”
Contreras’ nickname—The Titan of Bronze—was bestowed by Castro after the pitcher’s success in one particularly pressurized situation. In 1999, Contreras beat Team USA in the final of the Pan Am Games by striking out 13 batters in eight innings on just one day of rest.
In that game, which followed a six-inning outing in the semifinal, Contreras allowed a leadoff single to Dave Roberts before striking out eight consecutive batters, including Adam Kennedy, Milton Bradley and Craig Paquette.
The game was on July 26, one of the most important days in modern Cuban history (it’s the day Castro’s revolution effectively began, with the ill-fated attack on the army barracks in Moncada in 1953). Castro suspended the normal national festivities until the game with the United States was over and greeted the team when it returned that night from Winnipeg, Alberta.
It was during the ensuing celebration that Castro made a speech in which he called Contreras “El Titan de Bronce,” honoring him with the nickname of legendary general Antonio Maceo, who distinguished himself in Cuba’s war of independence from Spain.
“That’s big in Cuba,” Contreras said. “After that, the people in the streets would call me the Titan.”