SURPRISE, Ariz. -- You probably haven't thought about Jose Contreras in a long time.
After all, it's been 15 years since Contreras dazzled the Baltimore Orioles, Bud Selig and Fidel Castro with eight shutout innings, striking out ten, for Cuba. It's been more than a decade since Contreras defected, setting off a bidding war won by the New York Yankees for $32 million over four years.
It's been ten years since Contreras' family, who now lives in Miami, defected from Cuba as well, allowing him to pitch in front of them.
It's even been nine years since Contreras made the Yankees look silly for dumping him in a deal with the White Sox by pitching his new team to their first World Series championship since 1917, and eight years since he made his last All Star appearance.
Contreras is 42 now. He's four years into a conversion to relief pitching, at the urging of fellow Cuban Denys Baez, that has taken him from organization to organization -- the Phillies to the Pirates to the Red Sox to, this spring, the Texas Rangers.
It would be easy for a man like Jose Contreras, who persevered through Castro's Cuba and has earned some time off, to call it a career, or at the very least, refuse the kind of minor league assignments he's been given.
Contreras, though, has the enthusiasm for baseball of someone half his age. If his major league career is finished, it won't be voluntary.
I approached Contreras Thursday afternoon prior to the Rangers-Giants game, and he happily talked about his pursuit of more time on a major league team, bounding over to Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos to serve as able interpreter.
"The first thing is a love of the game," Contreras said. "That's why I'm here. I love the game. My family have been supportive all throughout my career. If it was not for support of my family, I'd probably have retired five years ago."
It may be that, given Contreras' age and recent injury struggles (he's had elbow issues for the last several years and lost most of 2013 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery), it is more realistic to ask for 60 innings than 200 at this point, though he is mentioned this spring as a long shot rotation candidate. It's been fascinating to see Contreras gradually rely more on his two-seam fastball and slider. A pitcher who once threw those two pitches, a four-seamer and a splitter in almost identical measures now knows he needs to simplify to pitch in relief.
"Those are the pitches you use to get a quick out, to save your arm," Contreras said. "It's different when you start, because you have to have three or four pitches when you face guys three or four times. But that's how I've been using those pitches, and I'm comfortable with it."
But Contreras sees himself less as a 42-year-old pitcher trying to hang on, and more like a burgeoning reliever gradually learning the craft.
Contreras said he usually throws about 15 in the pen to warm up for an appearance now, and doesn't limit to the sinker/slider combo, making sure he has a splitter and four-seamer to deploy, if necessary, as well.
"I have more experience now," Chirinos said of Contreras. "I already have four years in the bullpen now. For me, it's like normal to be in the bullpen."
I asked Contreras' manager, Ron Washington, whether Contreras' experience would serve as an advantage in the race for a roster spot.
"He's a very tough competitor," said Washington. "You know, one day, I see that heavy sink he has. And a tremendous breaking ball. Tremendous split. And then one day, I see it's not there. So... once again, haven't made a decision. But he certainly is keeping himself in the mix."
Contreras isn't sure whether he'll accept a minor league assignment this time around. But it's striking that after pitching nearly the entire 2013 season in the minors, Contreras actually went to the Dominican Republic for winter ball for the first time in his career. He's worked hard to keep the offseason free to spend it with his family in Miami, reunited for a decade now. He also knew he needed to show something more than he had last year to get a major league look. And he agreed with the notion that it was easier for him, a man who had been through so much, to pursue his dream on minor league buses a bit longer.
"Everything I went through in Cuba, my first ten years, I was making a dollar a month," Contreras said. "So taking that from what is happening right now, last year, making it through the minor leagues is nothing, you know?"
So he's pitching in Arizona, trying to convince the Rangers to give him one more shot. He picked the Rangers, in part, because they are expected to be contenders: "I thinks this team can win a World Series, and it's gonna be awesome if I can retire with one more World Series ring here in Texas."
That would be one more topper for a career that's already been defined on the biggest stages, in the biggest moments. And really, for Contreras, it's about being around the game. He said that won't change when he retires, whether that means coaching in baseball professionally, or just coaching his kids.
He isn't retired yet, though. And he's taking it all in, every day, while he still can.
"Everything. People in the stands, they can sit for two hours to watch the game, and it's not only that. I love to get on the field. Get ready for the game. The time it takes to get ready to pitch. To spend time with people in the clubhouse -- as a baseball player, we spend more time here in the clubhouse with our teammates than we spend with our families. I love that."
And Contreras is sure he can help a baseball team, in fact, more than ever.
"When you spend more time, getting older, that helps make you a better pitcher," Contreras said. "I'm as good a pitcher now -- speed is good lately, I've been feeling good. I'm a better pitcher now."