Posted: Thursday November 10, 2005 3:23PM; Updated: Thursday November 10, 2005 4:21PM
Jose Contreras did not give up more than three earned runs in a game after Aug. 15.
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
By Stephen Cannella
We Americans love a hero who can compartmentalize. Once upon a time Bret Saberhagen, at age 20, enthralled the nation by pitching the Royals to a world championship while his wife teetered on the edge of chidlbirth. More recently, Brett Favre enhanced his legend by throwing four touchdown passes one day after his father's fatal heart attack. There are many others, and in the sports pantheon a special wing is reserved for these superhuman emotional multitaskers. As much as speed and strength, it's the ability to ignore all-consuming personal distractions -- and elevate one's play -- that separates the elite athlete from you and me.
In so many words, Jose Contreras admits that he lacks that compartmentalization gene. And that deficiency -- not to mention his brilliance on the mound during the Chicago White Sox romp to a world championship -- is what makes him my Sportsman of the Year. There's something endearingly human about a player who can't help but let personal worries affect his professional duties, particularly if he performs well when things begin to fall into place off the field. This is especially so when it's not scandal or shame that has thrown life into chaos, but a despotic government, a splintered family and a desperate grab for liberty.
Finally reunited with his wife and children after a two-year separation, Contreras pitched like a champion in 2005. Without him, the White Sox' World Series drought likely would have been extended to an 89th year. "When I would lose a game before and [my wife and children] were not here, it was hard," the Cuban righthander said late this season. "But now it's a little easier to take. And when you win, you feel that much better because you can share it with your family."
The story has become a familiar one as the major leagues have gone global in the last decade. Contreras, a pitching hero in his beisbol-besotted country, defected in 2002, hopeful that his family would follow and that in the United States he'd gain the freedom and fortune he'd forever be denied in Cuba. He was partly right. The New York Yankees made him fabulously wealthy with a four-year, $32 million contract. But Contreras's wife and their two daughters were trapped in Cuba, where Fidel Castro's government did what it could to deny the pitcher's existence. Newspaper and television reports on Contreras's exploits in the U.S. were forbidden. Relatives of Contreras lost their jobs. The man Castro had once heroically dubbed the Bronze Titan was persona non grata in his homeland.
Lonely, distracted and fearful for his family, Contreras was far from the dominating pitcher the Yankees thought they were getting. After a season and a half, the Yankees gave up on their high-priced bust, trading him to the White Sox in June 2004. Contreras may have felt relief at escaping the media cauldron of New York, but it was nothing compared to the joy he felt six weeks before the trade. Under cover of darkness, Miriam and daughters Naylan, 12, and Naylenis, 4, along with 22 other refugees, snuck out of Cuba on a speedboat headed for Florida and freedom.
Contreras' mother and extended family stayed in Cuba, but after 21 months he was together again with his wife and children. They settled in Tampa, and as they fell into the rhythm of family life Contreras began to pitch like himself this year. His confidence grew. His fastball began to hum and his forkball began to dive. He was Chicago's most effective starter down the stretch, going 7-1 with a 2.78 ERA in his final 10 starts. He finished with 15 wins and seven losses, and continued his brilliance during the White Sox' magical run through the postseason. Contreras went 3-1, winning a game in the Division Series, ALCS and World Series. Said Contreras in the champagne-soaked Chicago clubhouse after Game 4 of the World Series, "This is one of the few times when I haven't missed Cuba."
Despite the government's attempt to blot out the news, the rest of Contreras's family was able to bask in Contreras's postseason glory. (His brother Humberto listened to Contreras's World Series start in a secret countryside location, on a pirated shortwave radio.)
The cliche of family is invoked too often in sports. If teammates bicker, it's because a team is a family and sometimes families fight. When a free agent is looking for employment, he's not looking for the highest offer, he's looking for the right situation for his family. But Contreras's struggles on and off the field, and his resurgence in 2005, remind us of what some endure to gain the benefits, financial and otherwise, of freedom. Some ordeals are too consuming to be ignored, even on the playing field. Contreras's story, in simple terms, is a reminder of what we should hold dear in sports and in life. There's nothing more sportsmanlike than that.