Cuban baseball defector returns home

Reuters, HAVANA

Sat, Feb 02, 2013 - Page 19

A decade after he defected to the US to play Major League Baseball, Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras returned to his homeland in the first test of the island’s liberalized travel laws.

He was welcomed on Tuesday at Havana’s Hot Corner, a mecca for baseball fans, by about 200 people who crowded around to get photos and autographs from the lanky right-hander.

Contreras, 41, signed baseball caps, dollar bills, Cuban money and a woman’s dress as he mixed happily with his fellow countrymen in an emotional return home.

“After 10 years, I’ve had the opportunity to come back to Cuba, to my land, my country, and it’s like a dream come true to be here with my family, with my fans,” Contreras said.

Before Jan. 14, when new travel regulations came into effect, high-profile defectors such as Contreras were effectively barred from returning to Cuba, but now they can go back if they have been away for at least eight years.

Contreras was in Mexico playing for the Cuban national team when he defected in 2002 and signed a four-year, US$32 million contract with the New York Yankees. He went on to pitch for the Chicago White Sox, Colorado Rockies and Philadelphia Phillies. Contreras was the first big-name athlete known to have tested the new law, returning to Cuba from the US driven not only by a desire to see his homeland, but to be with his 77-year-old mother Modesta Camejo, who is ill.

Camejo, wheelchair-bound after surgery to amputate one of her legs, said she was grateful to former Cuban president Fidel Castro for the change.

“I am very thankful to the Comandante who gave us that law,” she said. “Now things are different.”

The law is part of wide-ranging reforms enacted under Cuban President Raul Castro, who succeeded older brother Fidel as president in 2008. Many Cubans still think of the elder Castro as Cuba’s leader.

The change also allows Cubans to travel abroad without need of an exit visa for the first time since the government imposed restrictions half a century ago to stanch the flow of people fleeing the country after the 1959 revolution.

Contreras, who played for the Phillies last year but is currently a free agent, wears two bejeweled rings, one of them for the White Sox’s World Series in 2005 and another for the Yankees’ 2003 American League championship.

Before defecting, he was a star of Cuban baseball and a favorite of Fidel Castro for helping the Cuban national team win gold medals in the 1996 Olympics and the Baseball World Cup in 1998 and 2001.

At the Hot Corner, where people gather in Havana’s Parque Central to discuss baseball, there were no hard feelings against Contreras for leaving to make his fortune.

“It makes us immensely happy that Contreras is here in Cuba, his land, the country where he was born, a place he defended in other moments. The decision he has made is very personal and it has to be respected,” said Miguel Diaz, who wore a red cap with the New York Yankees emblem.