Contreras underground hero back in homeland of Cuba


October 23, 2005|By PETER SCHMUCK

Chicago-- --If you wanted to look at last night's Game 1 pitching matchup from a totally objective international perspective, you could have framed it as the Chicago White Sox sending the Roger Clemens of Cuba to the mound to face the Jose Contreras of the United States.

That probably sounds a little absurd - since Clemens is recognized as one of the greatest pitchers in major league history - but it wouldn't if you had been in Cuba when Contreras dazzled the Orioles during the historic goodwill series of 1999 (he pitched eight shutout innings of relief and struck out 10 in a 3-2 loss), or if you knew he had been voted Top Male Athlete in Cuba three times.

Contreras was a huge star when he defected and signed with the New York Yankees in 2003. He was traded to the White Sox at midseason last year and won 15 games this season to bolster one of the strongest starting rotations in the American League.

It's kind of funny, but when the Orioles initiated talks to play that controversial home-and-home series against a team of Cuban All-Stars, a lot of people thought Orioles owner Peter Angelos embarked on the politically charged venture to get a foot in the door in the event that a change in government or social climate made Cuban players available to the major leagues.

If that was the case, things didn't turn out quite as he intended, since Contreras was signed by one of Angelos' chief ownership rivals (George Steinbrenner) and reached the World Series with another (Jerry Reinsdorf).

The highlight of yesterday's local World Series coverage in Chicago - at least for me - was a story in the Chicago Tribune from Cuba, where Contreras and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez are officially treated as non-persons in their native land.

Humberto Contreras, the older brother of Jose, was planning to ride on horseback to a remote shed to listen to Game 1 on a short-wave radio, a scene that was being played out all over the island. Both Contreras and Hernandez were huge stars in Cuba before they defected to the United States to play in the major leagues.

They now are underground heroes, but by this morning every baseball fan in Cuba will know how Contreras fared in the World Series opener.

The 101st World Series features two Cuban defectors and two Yankee defectors. Andy Pettitte, who jumped to the Astros as a free agent before the 2004 season and ended up luring former Yankee Clemens out of retirement to join him in the Houston rotation, goes in Game 2 tonight against Mark Buehrle.

Pettitte said during yesterday's pre-game news conference that he had not had a chance to renew acquaintances with Contreras or Hernandez since they all were teammates in New York.

"Looking forward to seeing them," Pettitte said, "give both of them a big hug. They were a joy to be around in New York. I know I was around Duque a lot more than I was around Jose, but I'm just looking forward to seeing them. I'm glad for them. Jose had a hard time in New York the years he was there, so I'm excited for him that he was able to come here and put it all together, because he's got great stuff."

If you were wondering what it's like to be around White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, just think continual bilingual stream of consciousness.

Here's an example from yesterday's pre-game news conference, after Guillen received the Luis Aparicio Achievement Award from the people of Venezuela:

"There's been a lot of trophies sitting in my house in the past, Gold Glove and Rookie of the Year, a lot of different things. But to me - having this for my country, and in Luis' name, and getting it when I'm still alive, a lot of people wait until you die to give you stuff, so to be alive and give this to me is an honor."

Everyone has been predicting a low-scoring World Series, but I wouldn't be all that surprised if there are more points on the board at U.S. Cellular Field tonight than there will be at Soldier Field after the Ravens wrestle the Bears this afternoon.

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