On a recent afternoon, a conversation I had with a relief pitcher, whose name is inconsequential to this story, led to an interesting theory as to why fans seem to have more passion in criticizing and booing baseball players more so than other type of athlete: On the whole, baseball players are more like the fanbase that roots for them than any other athletes. Football players are abnormally large and fast, basketball players are too tall. But baseball players look mostly like everyday people.
Jose Contreras is 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, dark skinned, speaks almost entirely Spanish, and has a weathered, scrunched face that often makes people think he's older than he claims (41). And he's Cuban. In another era, Contreras would have played in the Negro Leagues, not the majors. He is about as different from the majority of American baseball fans as you can get, and there were certain expectations as a result.
Based simply on appearance, Contreras should have been the surly pitcher eager to throw at a batter at the slightest hint of disrespect. He should have had a mean streak that would have catapulted him to become one of the best pitchers in the game. But Contreras suffered in that his appearance was not an accurate representation of who he was: kind, soft-hearted and rather sensitive.
Despite a heralded amateur career in Cuba, and despite being a celebrated free agent at age 31 whose signing with the Yankees in 2003 caused then-Boston GM Theo Epstein to hurl a chair in his hotel room, Contreras, who has played for five major league teams, has mostly become a footnote as his career winds down. Now in his 10th year in the majors, Contreras, a middle reliever for the Pirates coming back from elbow surgery last year, is close to finishing a career that did not quite live up to expectations, at least those expectations that many fans and executives had mapped out for him.
But when his career is over he'll end up as a World Series winner with the Chicago White Sox, and he'll have a full pension once he retires as a result of his decade in the majors. Contreras' life has actually turned out better than he could have imagined. He won't be a Hall of Famer, but he's survived a life-risking move to the United States with his family not only intact, but thriving. His three children all attended school in the United States, and they have essentially become Americans, which was Contreras' wish all along. He wanted a free and unencumbered life for his children and he's gotten that. A man can ask no more.
When I saw Contreras in the Pirates clubhouse recently, I thought about what a remarkable achievement it has been for him to have played so long in the majors. He saw me as I stood in the hallway of the clubhouse, approached and gave me a big hug. Contreras is a man content with what life has given him.
Contreras' first year in the majors, in 2003, coincided with my first year covering baseball on a full-time basis in New York. He and I would often talk in the Yankee clubhouse about his children and wife, who he had left behind in Cuba. He spoke to them as often as he could. Contreras in that first year in New York lived a lonely, and somewhat, sad existence. He was separated from his loved ones -- his father died that year -- he couldn't communicate fully with the American press unless he was accompanied by a translator, and he was trying to adjust to a world, an environment, a culture he hardly understood.
There are Cuban exiles, like Aroldis Chapman for example, who craved the material things America could offer, and whose adjustment is easier because they revel in all the new things they find. Contreras was not one of those. He simply wanted to be recognized for his abilities as a baseball player, and to provide his children with a better life.
Contreras was from a small town in Pinar Del Rio in the western part of Cuba. He was a farm boy who was discovered by Cuban scouts while he played on rustic fields near his village. At night, Contreras would often sit outside his house and look across the ocean at the numerous lights twinkling from Mexico, his version of Gatsby's green light. He wondered what life was like beyond Cuba's borders. The outside world was inviting, but also intimidating.
In that first year, Contreras relied on some of his Spanish-speaking teammates, primarily Mexican reliever Antonio Osuna, to guide him through all the new things he would experience. He appeared content at times, but Cuba, at least the part of it where he had grown up, was always in his heart.
After that year, I stopped covering the Yankees and didn't see Contreras much anymore. But whenever I did run into him, he was always eager to reminisce and catch up. He always offered a big embrace. It was if all the reminders of his first season became fond memories once he had a comfortable life in the United States. And I think he appreciated those people who had tried to make his transition easier, even if it was just by having a conversation.
This year when I saw him, I could tell that he had something big to tell me.
"You know," he told me with a big grin, "I went to Cuba this year."
Recently, Cuba allowed those considered "deserters" to return back to the island if more than eight years had passed since their departure. Contreras defected in 2002 while in Mexico. Those twinkling lights had been too much to resist.
Contreras planned to stay in Cuba for half the month of February. Part of his motivation was to visit his ill mother. But he also craved seeing his home again. It had been so long.
Contreras spent the majority of time at his mother's bedside in the hospital, but on one free day he was working out in his hometown when he was approached by someone in the gym, who told him that there were several fans outside who wanted to meet him.
"When he told me that," Contreras said, "I thought it would be like four or five people. Then I opened the door and wow."
Outside, hundreds of people had lined outside the gym to meet the Bronze Titan, the nickname Fidel Castro had given him. After Contreras went outside and signed several autographs and posed for pictures, further word had spread that he was in town. Eventually, the town square was full of people who wanted to meet him.
Contreras, dressed in a red tank top and a blue shorts -- the colors of Cuba -- was overwhelmed with emotion. He had not expected such a reaction. He thought that perhaps he had been forgotten, or even worse, that people had hated him because he had left. It was the opposite. He was as beloved as ever.
The moment was an affirmation of the choice he had made more than 10 years ago, and the life he had lived since.
"Starling," Contreras said to Pirates outfielder Starling Marte, who was nearby when Contreras was telling the story, "you know what all the people in Florida were saying? They said I was going to visit Fidel. They were saying I was a communist."
Contreras chuckled. He has never been one to delve much into politics. He loves his country because he loved the landscape, the lush trees, the soft breeze, and the people.
As he mingled among his countrymen, Contreras thought about how time had quickly passed, how he will always be Cuba's son, and how much he truly had accomplished. Among a group of fans who spoke like him, who acted like him, who looked like him, Contreras found out that his life had been a rousing success.
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Arangure has been a baseball writer since 2003. He has worked as a senior writer for ESPN and The Washington Post. He's still looking for a Mexican restaurant in New York City that's as good as something from his hometowns of Tijuana/San Diego. He doesn't think he'll find one.