Jose Contreras  
 


When the New York Yankees outbid the Boston Red Sox for Cuban defector Jose Contreras, they expected the world—or at the very least, a few more World Series rings. When he didn't deliver, he was banished to Chicago. One season later, the big righthander was mowing 'em down for the White Sox, and making the Yankees regret the day they said, "No way, Jose." This is his story…

GROWING UP

Jose Contreras was born on December 6, 1971, in Havana, Cuba to Modesta and Florentino Contreras. The youngest of nine children, he was raised in the small rural town of Las Martinas, in the western part of the country. The Contreras home was better than most—it had a concrete floor. But Jose was still a country boy, a campesino.

Florentino was in his 50s when Jose was born. He had grown up in Cuba during the 1920s and '30s, played baseball in the '40s, and was a revolutionary with Fidel Castro in the '50s. He taught his family to respect Castro and love the Cuban flag. He also taught Jose how to throw. Father and son spent endless hours tossing a ball in the dirt street that ran in front of their home.

These games of catch eventually developed into more formal mound work, as Jose grew to over six feet tall. Unlike most of the gangly kids he knew, Jose had broad shoulders and enormous, powerful hands in his early teens. He could do ungodly things with a baseball by this time, and was a frequent participant in junior tournaments, both on and off the island.

Jose dreamed of playing baseball for a few years, and then settling into life as a veterinary technician. There was a great need in Cuba for people with the expertise to care for animals, and this would enable him to stay in the country while still making a decent income.

While in veterinary school, Jose met a girl named Miriam Murillo-Flores. He married her in 1988, when he was 16 and she was 15. They had their first child, a girl named Naylan, four years later. Their second daughter, Naylenis, was born in 2000. They had a third child in the years that followed.

In 1991, at the age of 19, Jose signed to play with the Pinar del Rio club. By now he had an explosive fastball that exceeded 90 mph. Paired with a late-breaking splitter that knuckled as well as dipped, he was unhittable when he had both pitches working.


 
 

That summer, Cuban ballplayers heard the startling news that one of their own, Rene Arocha, had defected while laid over in the Miami airport. He was signed to a multimillion-dollar contract by the St. Louis Cardinals, and labeled a traitor in his homeland. To most of Jose’s teammates, however, it seemed like a pretty good trade-off.

Dozens of Cubans followed Arocha over the next several years. Typically, the players who defected were sophisticated city boys who grew up surrounded by the relative wealth of Havana. The country boys tended not to dream so boldly. For them, life as a pro athlete was hard to imagine, infinitely better than what they were accustomed to.

In 1996, Jose was selected to pitch for the Cuban national baseball team, which captured the gold medal at the Summer Games in Atlanta. In 17 innings of work, he struck out 16 batters and picked up a win. Jose remained on the squad for seven seasons, becoming the ace after a few years.

In 1998, he beat Korea and Japan at the Baseball World Championship, winning another gold for Cuba. It was during this time that Castro bestowed a new nickname on Jose: The Titan of Bronze. He dined frequently with the Cuban leader, who was a huge baseball fan and a former pitcher in his pre-revolutionary youth.

Jose was particularly good against pros from other countries. In his last three big international tournaments—the 1999 Pan Am Games, 2000 Olympics and 2001 World Cup—he fashioned an eye-popping 7-0 record with an 0.59 ERA.

Baseball in Cuba is the national pastime, but it also suffers from the economic ills that afflict the island nation. Foul balls are returned and reused. Cleats are repaired with duct tape. Mitts are worn until they are literally worn out. Jose was tempted to leave this life behind on the many international trips he made with the national team. But something always kept him from going.

Had he been a spare arm or a utility player, he might have done it. But Jose was a symbol to his countrymen—the best-known pitcher in all of Cuba. He relished his reputation as the top hurler in international tournaments. Yes, the major leagues offered better competition, but in terms of pressure and passion, nothing short of the World Series could top the atmosphere in which he pitched and won for Cuba. Still, Jose was constantly being approached through intermediaries willing to arrange his escape. One promised he could earn a $50 million payday. Time and time again, Jose refused.


Rene Arocha, 1992 Excel

 

 
 

ON THE RISE

 
 

In 1999, the national team faced the Baltimore Orioles in Havana for an exhibition game. Jose took the mound and dominated the O's hitters. He threw eight innings of scoreless ball, and looked like he could have thrown eight more. He fanned slugger Albert Belle twice to the delight of the crowd. In the Pan Am Games that same year, Jose got the call against Team USA and twirled eight scoreless innings again—this time on one day’s rest.

At the 2000 Olympics, Jose fanned 13 games against Australia, then mowed down 14 Japanese hitters in the semifinals. He did not take the hill in the gold medal game against Team USA, which Cuba lost. Jose was named the top pitcher in Sydney.

Despite Jose’s growing celebrity, back home things were not getting much better. Most players lived with their families in a motel located in Pinar del Rio. In time, Jose began to regard these accommodations as a prison. And to a large degree, they were.

There were other problems. Baseball players were high on the list for receiving food, but they were not at the top of it. When food shortages hit Cuba, sometimes they were left hungry. As Jose approached his 30s, and he thought more about his family’s future, the oppressive atmosphere began to wear on him.

In 2000, with the arrival of their second child, Jose asked the proper authorities if he could have a house. He was given one, but it was in such poor condition the family could not move in. Two years later, repairs had not started.

Jose had long assumed that his heroics for Cuba would one day warrant an esteemed place in Cuban society. Or at least a comfortable retirement. It was when he began doubting that these rewards would come to him that his thoughts turned to defecting. The chain of events that put him over the edge was triggered when his car broke down in Havana in 2002. Jose needed a major repair (which would require more than $400 in American money). He made less than that in a year.

Jose called the head of Cuban Sports Federation and asked for the money. To Jose’s dismay, he was told to find another way home. The federation would not pick up the tab. It was an incredibly poor decision—Jose was 13-4 with a 1.76 ERA. If anyone deserved a jump start, it was him.

At that moment, Jose decided he would leave. He withdrew all of his money from a Havana bank, paid for the repair himself, and pocketed the rest.

The team’s next trip was to Mexico. As he always did before leaving for a tournament, Jose visited his father, who was now 83. The old man seemed to sense something different in his son. He told Jose that he should always remain loyal to his family and to Cuba. Tears filled Jose’s eyes, but he said nothing. Jose’s wife also suspected something was up. She brought his two daughters with her to Jose Mati airport to say goodbye—something she had never done before.

Jose defected through his soon-to-be-agent, Jaime Torres. On October 1, 2002, Torres sent a car to his hotel in Santillo after a game against the Dominican Republic. Jose got in, drove to the airport, and boarded a plane for Tijuana with pitching coach Miguel Valdes and his son. The four were detained when they attempted to cross the border into San Diego, but after explaining who he was and why he was there, Jose was allowed to enter the country. He took the first plane to Miami, where he prepared to begin his new life as a highly paid international sports star.


Albert Belle, 1993 Upper Deck
 
 

The two teams most interested in bidding for Jose’s services were the New YNews of Jose’s defection spread through Cuba like wildfire. When he called his wife, she was furious with him. She thought he was going to abandon her and remarry, as Rey Ordonez and others had done. He promised her that he would find a way to get her and the kis to America. Jose was very concerned about his father. Would he ever speak to him again? Florentino told Jose that he was his son in Cuba and he would be his son in the United States. It was a great weight off his mind.

ork Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Each was looking for an edge in what promised to be a heated AL East race that summer. The Yankees eventually won out, inking Jose to a four-year contract worth $32 million.

Jose reported to his first spring training with the Yankees in 2003, but it was not a happy time. He missed his wife and daughters more than he had expected, and his father had suffered a stroke. He carried his worries to the mound, getting rocked in his early outings. Manager Joe Torre, seeing the burden under which Jose was laboring, told the press that he was definitely making the team. This announcement helped Jose's mental state considerably, and he pticher better, looking sharper as Opening Day approached.

Jose was beaten out of the fifth starter’s spot by Jeff Weaver. When he could not find his command coming out of the pen, he was sent to the minors for a few weeks to work on his mechanics with Billy Connors. Some thought his lack of control and drop in velocity had to do with the the 15-plus pounds he had packed onto his already sizable frame since arriving in Miami the previous fall.

Jose returned to the rotation that spring and made two great starts before straining his shoulder. He came back at the end of August, and during New York's stretch run he was the club's most effective starter. Jose finished 7-2 in 18 appearances, half of them starts. He had a 3.30 ERA and fanned a batter an inning.

The Yankees won the East and faced the Minnesota Twins in the Division Series. Despite Jose’s late-season performance, Torre went with his top four of Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and David Wells. Jose did not log an inning in the series, which went to the Yankees three games to one.

In an epic ALCS battle with the Red Sox, Jose once again pitched out of the pen. Torre brought him in with a lead in Game 6 with a chance to seal the deal, but he coughed up three runs and took the loss. The Yankees, however, finished off the Sox the next evening to advance to the World Series against the Florida Marlins.

In a series that boiled down to starting pitching, Florida was one arm better, winning four games to two on Josh Beckett’s five-hit shutout in Game 6. Again, Jose was relegated to the bullpen. He pitched the ninth innings of the first two games—the first a Yankee loss and the second a Yankee win. He threw two dazzling extra innings in Game 4, and was the man called in to relieve Wells the next day when he begged out of Game 5 with a sore back. Jose gave up three runs before settling down, but the Yanks could not come back. In all, Jose worked 6.1 innings against the Marlins, allowing 10 runners, and striking out 10 batters.

Jose’s second season as a Yankee was a forgettable one. His inconsistency drove Torre crazy, and his losses to the Red Sox made George Steinbrenner feel as if he had been cheated on his investment.


Jose Contreras, 2003 New York Post
 
 

To his credit, the Boss kept his promise to try to get Jose’s family out of Cuba. That spring, a speed boat spirited his wife and two daughters—along with 18 other refugees—off the island and into the Florida keys, where they were granted asylum. The quality of the boat and skill of the driver suggested that there was some serious money behind the operation, and Steinbrenner’s Tampa connections probably had something to do with that. A few days later, Miriam and the girls watched Jose dominate the New York Mets, 8-1, as he whiffed out a career-best 10 in six innings of work.

With his family reunited, expectations for Jose were at an all-time high. So when he got his butt kicked by Boston again that summer, patience began to wear thin. With the New York press and Steinbrenner souring on Jose, it was only a matter of time before he was shown the door. In late July, the Yanks dealt him to the White Sox for Esteban Loaiza. Chicago also picked up Freddy Garcia and Carl Everett in other deadline deals.

Jose was a guy GM Kenny Williams had tried to get from the Yankees before. With new manager Ozzie Guillen on board, Williams was more determined than ever to land the big righty. He believed that in a less stressful environment—with a manager communicating with him in his native language—Jose would thrive. In his debut for Chicago, the White Sox hammered four home runs and he twirled six strong innings in a 12-4 victory.

Jose finished the year 13-9 to run his major-league record to 20-11. To his dismay, however, he was still considered something of a failure by baseball fans. But not by the White Sox. They knew what an asset he was, and made him feel at home right away. Jose often said that he felt as welcome in the Chicago clubhouse as he had been for 12 seasons pitching for the same team in Cuba.

MAKING HIS MARK

For the first time since his defection, everything seemed fairly settled when Jose reported to his first spring training with the White Sox in 2005. His family was in the U.S., living in a lovely home in Tampa. Jose, meanwhile, was looking to move to the next level and become one of the elite pitchers in the game.

The White Sox had retooled their club to emphasize pitching, speed and defense, which promised to make games exciting that year. Jose fit in with a starting staff that included Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, John Garland and newly acquired Orlando Hernandez. The starters were expected to get the ball to the bullpen, where Guillen juggled relievers, using Dustin Hermanson and later Bobby Jenks to close games.

Jose started the year slowly. He had some good outings, and some not so good. At the All-Star break, his record stood at a lackluster 4-5 with a 4.26 ERA.

Pitching coach Don Cooper stepped in and told Jose that he needed to develop a better tempo on the mound. Throw strikes, Cooper urged, and use the fastball to set up the splitter. Jose was a good guy and a good pitcher, Cooper added. Things would break his way, if he just relaxed. The two developed a great bond over the summer, and Jose began to trust a coach as a friend for the first time in a long time. Jose also got advice from Hernandez, who reminded him how effective he was as a youngster in Cuba with his three-quarters delivery. The two had become instant friends during their brief time together in pinstripes. Talking about pitching with El Duque felt like old times.


Jose Contreras, 2004 New York Post
 
 

Jose finally found his rhythm in July and went on one of the greatest hot streaks in franchise history. His splitter was diving, his fastball was exploding, and he made some of the best hitters in baseball look utterly helpless at the plate. The White Sox gave him great run support in about half his starts, but when they didn’t, he sucked it up and gutted out the victory. As the team built a double-digit lead in Central, it was Jose who got them there by winning games by scores of 1-0, 2-1, 2-1, 3-1 and 4-3.

By the end of the season, Jose was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He had it all working, from batter to batter and pitch to pitch. He went 11-2 in the second half with an ERA under 3.00, earning W's his last eight decisions. Jose’s final record was 15-7 with 154 K’s in 204.2 innings. He went 6-0 in September and was named the AL Pitcher of the Month.

After a scary late-season slide that saw their huge lead evaporate before the hard-charging Cleveland Indians, Jose effectively clinched the division with an 8-2 victory over Detroit in which he fanned nine Tigers and walked only one. Like three other wins by Jose in the second half, this one halted a White Sox losing streak. Chicago silenced off the Tribe over the final weekend, then prepared to face the Red Sox in the Division Series.

Boston had every right to believe it would administer another beating to Jose, whose ERA against the club stood at an appalling 11.67. Still, Guillen tabbed him to pitch the opener, and right away the Red Sox knew they were seeing a very different pither—the guy they had tried to land a couple of years earlier. He pitched seven-plus innings in a 14-2 victory that spelled the beginning of the end for the defending champs, as Chicago swept them in three games. After the series, Johnny Damon said that Jose’s stuff was the best they saw all year.

Against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the ALCS, the Chicago starters put on a pitching exhibition that seemed like something out of the Dead Ball era. After Jose dropped the first game of the series 3-2, the White Sox got complete-game wins out of Buehrle, Garland and Garcia to go up three games to one. Jose took the mound looking to close the Angels out. He hurled a five-hit 6-3 win, retiring the last 15 batters he faced. His performance continued an incredible streak, as Chicago hurlers recorded their fourth straight complete game. The effort also gave the White Sox their first pennant since 1959.

Jose got the ball in Game 1 of the World Series against the Houston Astros and did not disappoint. Except for a two-run double by Lance Berkman, he was in control all the way, pitching into the eighth inning of a 5-3 victory. The White Sox ran the table on Houston, sweeping four close games for their first championship since 1917. Jermaine Dye accepted MVP honors, but it was the Chicago starting staff that people couldn't stop talking about.


Jose Contreras, 2005 Upper Deck
 
  What lies ahead for Jose Contreras? Now that he is relaxed, happy and wearing a championship ring, he is free to become the intimidator he once was on the international baseball scene. With a manager he loves, a pitching coach he trusts, and a team full of hard-nosed guys scrapping for victories, Jose is in starting pitcher heaven.

 
  JOSE THE PITCHER

 
 

Jose hides the ball well and has a delivery that many hitters find deceptive. Although his heater does not consistently reach the mid-90s as it used to, he can move it into this range when he needs to. Plus he still possesses his forkball from hell. His confidence in this pitch is so absolute that he will—and often has—throw it with three balls and the bases loaded.

Besides the fastball and splitter, Jose throws a slider, overhand curve and change. He uses three different arm slots, which effectively give him more than a dozen different pitches. Jose’s weakness comes when he must field the ball—he tends to lumber around the mound. He also is below average at holding runners on.

With the Yankees, Jose’s most effective pitch was his overhand curve. What frustrated the team was his reluctance to use his fastball to set it up. Jose insisted on throwing his splitter, and eventually lost velocity (and then confidence) in his heater. With Chicago, he is getting ahead with his fastball, and then finishing hitters off with his splitter. He is also using his three-quarters motion more, harkening back to his days as Cuba’s ace in international competition.

Jose's performance in the 2005 playoffs and World Series has disspelled the notion that he's not a big-game pitcher. Of course, in Cuba every game was a big game. His success under postseason pressure in the majors was perhaps just a matter of time.


Jose Contreras, 2004 New York Post
 
 

Jose Contreras

 
   
 

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