Two countries and two mega budget franchises coveted Jose Contreras. There was tension between nations and fan bases for his services. And it turned out he had a moment of glory for the second team of the second city and emerged a champion.
Jose Ariel Contreras Camejo was born in Las Martinas, Pinar del Río, Cuba. He was a dynamic right handed pitcher and became a national hero. The problem was his nation was Cuba.
At some point, a baseball player from Cuba would be able to come to America as easily as if they were from Mexico, the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. But when Contreras was pitching Pinar del Rio Vegueros in the Cuban League and for the National Team in the Olympics and Pan American Games, his ability to offer his services to MLB would require defection.
Three times he was named the Cuban Athlete of the Year and wowed scouts when he pitched at Camden Yards in an exhibition game in 1999. Around that time, Cuban pitchers Livan Hernandez and his half brother Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez had become post season stars.
The idea of finding another Cuban star shining in the post season piqued the imagination of American teams. And Contreras knew this, knowing that leaving Cuba would lead him to being a multimillionaire playing at the highest level.
While playing in a series in Mexico in October of 2002, Contreras defected and made his services available to Major League teams. The Red Sox, who were victimized by El Duque in the 1999 ALCS, made a push to sign Contreras to be a 1-2-3 punch with Pedro Martinez and Cy Young contender Derek Lowe.
But in December, the Yankees swooped in and signed him to a multi million dollar four year deal right after Christmas. Smarting from losing out of Contreras’ services, new Red Sox vice president Larry Lucchino dubbed the Yankees the “Evil Empire” publicly. Lucchino looked petty to other lower budget teams but the Yankees and their fans embraced the label.
Contreras joined an insanely deep rotation. Roger Clemens, David Wells, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Jeff Weaver were already on the team.
His 2003 was a mixed bag. He began the year as a long reliever and was bombed badly. The Red Sox blasted him for 5 runs in 1 1/3 innings during a 10-7 slugfest in Fenway Park. In June, he made a fine 7 inning start against the Reds but found himself on the disabled list shortly after that.
Contreras returned to the Yankees at the end of August. He made a good start on August 24th against Baltimore but was clobbered by the Red Sox again on August 29th.
Dubbed a bust by Yankee fans in the same category as Hideki Irabu, he finished September with 4 quality starts and quietly gave the team some hope.
In the postseason, the Red Sox victimized him again, tallying 4 runs over 3 innings in Game 6 of the ALCS, setting up the Aaron Boone game. He also lost Game 5 where he had to come into the game early for an injured David Wells.
In 2004, pressure was on Contreras. Roger Clemens, David Wells and Andy Pettitte were gone. Jeff Weaver was flipped for Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez was added to the rotation as well. Contreras needed to come through as the tensions between the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East was strengthening.
He was hit hard early and often, once again by the Red Sox on April 23rd. He was optioned to the minor leagues but little seemed to be working.
Somehow, Steinbrenner and company got his wife and daughters from Cuba to witness him pitch a great game against the Mets in June. But that strong outing looked like a fluke.
At the trade deadline of July 31, the Yankees decided to cut bait. They swapped Contreras with White Sox pitcher Esteban Loaiza. Away from the Yankee glare, he had good days and bad days in Chicago, finishing the season with 3 wins in his final 4 starts.
When the White Sox began the 2005 season, Contreras was part of a talented but somewhat anonymous squad. All eyes in baseball remained on the fight between the Red Sox and Yankees (who would finish 2005 with identical records.) In Chicago, the Cubs still reigned. The White Sox were safely tucked away from the spotlight.
Contreras pitched well if not like an All Star as the season began. The White Sox jumped out to a fast start under manager Ozzie Guillen. Another figure on that White Sox team seemed to play an influence on him: fellow Cuban defector Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez.
El Duque was in the Montreal organization during Contreras’ first year with the Yankees. But they were teammates in the Bronx briefly in 2004. In 2005, El Duque was on the White Sox and urged Contreras to drop his arm angle in his delivery.
He threw 7 shutout innings against the contending Indians after the All Star break. In the second half of 2005, he pitched like the ace the Yankees and Red Sox coveted. He went 11-2 with an ERA of 2.96 ERA for the second half, striking out 82 and walking only 27 in 103 1/3 innings.
The White Sox won the Division and looked to end their long (but compared to the Cubs and Red Sox underplayed) championship drought. The hard hitting defending World Champion Red Sox came to Chicago for Game 1 of the Division Series. Contreras got the start and Red Sox fans (including me) had memories of Boston pounding him throughout 2003 and 2004.
But Contreras got the last laugh. He pitched into the 8th, allowing 2 runs over 7 2/3 innings as the White Sox clobbered Boston in a 14-2 blowout. The White Sox swept Boston and went into the ALCS against the Angels.
Contreras pitched Game 1 into the 9th, but took a hardluck 3-2 loss. But the White Sox went back to their winning ways. Each Chicago pitcher threw a complete game victory for Games 2, 3 and 4. Contreras took the hill for Game 5 in Anaheim. The White Sox were on the verge of the World Series.
Now keep in mind at that time, the city of Chicago had not seen a World Series since 1959 when the White Sox fell to the Dodgers. The White Sox of 2005 were about to give the Second City a World Series for the first time since expansion happened, Division Play was started and Free Agency earned for players.
Contreras was solid but allowed the Angels to take a 3-2 lead into the 7th. Joe Crede tied the game in the 7th with a solo homer and Crede drove home the go ahead run in the 8th.
Meanwhile Contreras did not allow a base runner in the 6th, 7th and 8th. In the 9th, the White Sox expanded the lead to 6-3. Contreras took the mound for the 9th. After retiring Darin Erstad and Bengie Molina, the White Sox were now just an out from the World Series.
Contreras got Casey Kotchman to ground out sharply to first baseman Paul Konerko who stepped on the bag and hugged Contreras. The White Sox won the pennant. Contreras would have his moment of glory but not do so for Boston, New York or Cuba but rather for the city of Chicago.
He won Game 1 of the World Series in a solid start against the Astros. He would not get another start as the White Sox made quick work of Houston in a 4 game sweep. Chicago had a World Champion for the first time since the 1917 World Series and Contreras was the ace of the team.
While never the Cy Young candidate he was forecasted as, Contreras has put together a nice career and has become a baseball lifer. He has played in the post season with the 2009 Colorado Rockies and the 2010 Philadelphia Phillies. He made a cameo with the Pirates and even pitched a few games in the Red Sox organization (finally.)
He has played the last few years (in his mid 40’s) in the Mexican League, all the while looking for his next big league chance.