My team did not make it to the World Series this year, so I’ll be pulling for the Chicago White Sox. I want Fidel Castro to angrily toss his Soviet-era transistor radio out the window when he hears that two more Cuban defectors earned World Series rings.
The 2005 White Sox give any baseball fan reason to cheer in their own right. The franchise has been so bad for so long (last World Series win: 1917) that despite five consecutive winning seasons, it hardly had a fan base. Now they are playing for the world title for the first time since 1959 (the Sox have only 7 playoff appearances in the franchise’s 104-year existence), and they are doing it with a fairly young team and an ebullient, likable manager.
But even more amazing than the turnaround of this once lifeless franchise are the stories of its two Cuban pitching stars, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and Jose Contreras. The pair infuriated Castro by drawing attention to the true nature of his police state when they defected in 1997 and 2002 respectively. Every time they take the mound in the World Series, the announcers will have another opportunity to mention their daring escapes from Castro’s island prison. If they lead their team to a World Series victory, it will provide the ultimate contrast to the obscurity and poverty in which their countrymen are forced to live–and to which they would have remained consigned had they not risked their lives to escape. And it will enrage Castro, whom El Duque once called “the Devil” on national television.
Devil’s Soon to Be Wearing the Ring?
When he was a boy, Orlando Hernandez was so obsessed with baseball that he slept with his glove. He also shared a bed with his older brother, Arnaldo, whose death at age 30 a lot of people blamed on Castro. Arnaldo died of a brain aneurysm. Because there was no ambulance service, it took more than an hour to get him to the hospital. Hernandez, the winningest pitcher in “revolutionary” Cuba’s history, was a national hero in the early 1990s, but nine years after his 1986 debut he was banned from baseball. His crime was helping his half-brother Livan defect. Livan went on to become the MVP of the 1997 World Series, during which he embarrassed Fidel by shouting, “I love Miami”–in English. How could a good socialist boy do such a thing?
At the time of his banishment, Orlando Hernandez was a huge star. It would be as if President Clinton had banned Michael Jordan from basketball during his prime.
To intimidate other players from defecting, Cuba arrested Juan Ignacio, a U.S. citizen accused of helping Livan Hernandez and other players defect, and held a show trial. (He was a partner of infamous agent Joe Cubas, who did get players to defect, and he delivered contraband cash from Livan Hernandez to Orlando and other family members.) Hernandez, a known friend of Ignacio, was put on the witness stand. The government wanted him to denounce Ignacio as an enemy of the state. Asked whether Ignacio was a friend or enemy, Hernandez defiantly and publicly called Ignacio his “companero,” or comrade.
A year later, his career destroyed because he had defied Castro, Hernandez was found, with his wife and six other defectors, on Anguilla Cay in the Bahamas. They had arranged to be dropped off there and then picked up by some contacts in America, but their contacts never arrived. They ate conch to survive, and three days later they flagged down a helicopter. The next day they were on a Coast Guard cutter. Fearing they would be shipped back to Cuba, Hernandez told everyone he could that he was the brother of Livan Hernandez, who had just led the Florida Marlins to a World Series championship over the Cleveland Indians two months earlier. The ship’s translator related this to the boarding officer, who happened to be from Cleveland.
Though Hernandez won no fans on the Coast Guard cutter, he soon wowed scouts for the New York Yankees, his favorite American team, for whom he went 12-4 with a 3.13 era the next year. That fall, ten days shy of the one-year anniversary of Juan Ignacio’s trial, during which El Duque defiantly called Ignacio his “companero,” Hernandez won Game 2 of the World Series, striking out seven and giving up just one run in seven innings. Through the end of last season, El Duque was 9-3 in the post-season, with a 2.65 era. His record in the World Series is 4-1 with a 2.28 era. Had he not defected, he would have died another obscure Cuban pitcher, virtually unknown outside Castro’s fortress.
A Dream Come True
Jose Contreras, the White Sox’s ace for the playoffs and best pitcher in the second half of this season, defected in 2002 for reasons similar to El Duque’s. He needed to take care of his family.
“Miriam, you know that my dream was to play in the Major Leagues, but if we had had our own house, for us and the girls to be together as a family, I would’ve been there with you. But I had to do something to guarantee the future of my family,” Contreras’s wife, Miriam, told the New York Daily News he had said to her before his defection.
Contreras earned about $23 a month as a star pitcher for the Cuban national team, which he helped win a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics and a silver in 2000. He also pitched brilliantly in an exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles in 1999. But his wife said the family had waited years for a house the government promised them, and they struggled to care for their daughters.
After Contreras struck out 10 Orioles in 1999, Castro phoned him to offer his appreciation. The Miami Herald wrote of him, “Pitcher Jose Contreras is hailed as a hero in Cuba today because Fidel Castro says he embodies everything that is good about the tyrant’s revolution.”
Contreras was publicly loyal to Castro, who trusted him implicitly. He was considered so loyal that he was put in charge of all the team’s passports when they went on foreign trips. He and his wife have been careful to classify his defection as an economic and not a political decision. But of course, under communism there is no difference between the two.
After Contreras and the national team’s coach defected during a team trip to Mexico on Oct. 25, 2002, Cuba immediately denounced Contreras as a “traitor.” As long as Contreras was in a Cuban uniform, he was a tribute to the socialist system, as if Jose Contreras the individual had made no contribution to his own success, which was manufactured entirely by the government. But Castro’s pronouncements fooled no one. After his defection, Contreras remained popular among Cuban baseball fans, who continued to follow him after the Yankees signed him for $32 million, the biggest contract ever offered to a Cuban defector.
Contreras did well in his first major-league season, but the separation from his wife and two young daughters took its toll. Miriam was arrested more than once, and many thought she would be imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Saddled with anxiety over his wife and sadness over the separation from her and his daughters, Contreras failed to live up to expectations, and he went back and forth between the Yankees and the minors. The Yankees tried to improve his mechanics, but he insisted it was all in his head. Castro had told Contreras’s wife that she’d have to wait five years–until the Cuban people had forgotten about her husband–before she would be allowed off the island to visit him. She couldn’t wait that long. In 2004 she, her daughters and a boatload of other Cubans landed in the Florida keys.
Finally reunited with his family, Contreras has shined. After going 13-9 with a 5.50 era last season, he is 15-7 with a 3.61 era this year. Contreras pitched for the Yankees in the 2003 World Series, which the Florida Marlins won. Now he has perhaps his last chance to collect a World Series ring–a triumphant symbol of personal accomplishment, which Castro no doubt would denounce as a symbol of the evils of capitalism.
Unfortunately for Castro, Cubans have not forgotten Jose Contreras or Orlando Hernandez. Though broadcasts of major-league games are banned in Cuba, people will find ways to tune in for this World Series, when two of the best pitching stars the island has ever produced will attempt to win the most prestigious baseball title in the world.
Victory for the White Sox would be a great accomplishment for a fine team, and for a franchise that has suffered through 88 years without a title. Yet more profoundly, it would be another defeat for Castro and his twisted efforts to dominate every individual born on the little island he has ruled since 1959–the last year the White Sox were in the World Series.
–Andrew Cline is editorial-page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.