Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A strong bond between Contreras, Baez

Matt Gelb still here. Just 19 days until pitchers and catchers...

A strong bond between Contreras, Baez

Danys Baez and Jose Contreras have forged a strong relationship over the years. (AP photo)
Danys Baez and Jose Contreras have forged a strong relationship over the years. (AP photo)

Matt Gelb still here. Just 19 days until pitchers and catchers...

The first person to call Jose Contreras and congratulate him on his one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Phillies was Danys Baez. Contreras was shocked to hear Baez on the other end -- How did he know already? -- and the two Cuban pitchers talked about their new team.

They share a strong bond.

In 1999, when both pitched for the Cuban national team during a tournament in Winnipeg, Baez took Contreras on a shopping trip. Baez bought something and handed the bag to Contreras. The only instructions were to give the bag to Baez's family back in Cuba.

"He probably knew he was going to leave already," Contreras said through a translator on Thursday.

Yes, Baez was going to leave -- defect from Cuba with the hopes of signing a major-league contract. He snuck away from the team the next day. And on Nov. 5, 1999, the Cleveland Indians signed Baez as a free agent. The Phillies signed Baez to a two-year $5.25 million earlier this month.

After Baez disappeared, Contreras stayed with the Cuban team and flew back home. His first stop was to the Baez residence, where he was expected.

"All the police officers in the town were waiting for me," Contreras said.

By that point, Cuban officials knew what Baez had done. They waited outside for Contreras, who gave the bag to Baez's parents, who were crying, Contreras said. Contreras wouldn't say what was inside, just that it was a "personal" item.

The police took Contreras in for questioning.

"I explained that Danys is a friend and I had a gift Danys had given me," Contreras said.

Since he knew few details of Baez's defection, Contreras was let go. Three years later, when he had attained the status of Cuban's best and most popular baseball player, Contreras defected during a tournament in Mexico.

He left behind a wife, two daughters, his mother and father plus six older sisters and two older brothers. Two years later, when he was already an established major-leaguer with the Yankees in 2004, his wife and daughters were allowed passage into the United States. But Contreras received the hardest phone call: His father had died.

Contreras listened to the funeral back in Cuba through a phone.

"My father wanted me to play at the top level, the best baseball in the world," Contreras said. "I don’t regret the decision I made."

The rest of his family remains in Cuba. Contreras' agent, Jaime Torres, said he has been working on obtaining a travel visa for Conteras' mother to enter the United States and expects to have it sometime this year.

Contreras, 38, said he would prefer to start for the Phillies but would accept any assignment the team has. It's hard not to believe him, considering everything the pitcher risked and surrendered just for a major-league career.

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