By Kevin Baxter
October 5, 2002
Photo: Patty Ortín
MIAMI–Jose Contreras, the ace of the Cuban pitching staff, and Miguel Valdes, a high-ranking veteran of the nation’s baseball program, have defected during the Americas Series tournament in Saltillo, Mexico.
A seven-year veteran of the island’s powerful national team, Contreras, who turns 31 on Dec. 12, has a lifetime record of 117-50, 2.82 in Cuban league play. Last season he won 13 of 17 decisions with a league-best 1.76 ERA.
A 6-foot-4, 224-pound righthander with a 93 mph fastball and a darting forkball, Contreras is best known in the U.S. for the eight shutout innings he pitched against the Orioles during a nationally televised exhibition game in Havana three years ago. In that game, Contreras allowed just two hits and struck out 10, including Albert Belle twice.
Technical adviser Valdes, who essentially has served as the Cuban national team’s general manager for almost 30 years, was also reported missing and defected with Contreras.
Friday, Cuba’s National Institute of Sports and the Cuban Federation of Baseball confirmed the defections of Contreras and Valdes. Their joint statement said Valdes “deserted, shamelessly betraying the trust deposited in him by our people.” Valdes was the highest-ranking baseball official in the country who was not a political appointment, according to Cuban baseball experts.
The statement had this to say about Contreras: “Until the moment of his desertion from the ranks of Cuban sports (he) had maintained a correct attitude and discipline.”
Contreras has dominated in international competition. Facing professionals in his last three major international tournaments (1999 Pan American Games, 2000 Olympics and 2001 World Cup), Contreras went 7-0, 0.59, giving up 13 walks and 36 hits while striking out 66 in 61 innings.
“I’d be shocked if he wasn’t in big demand around major league baseball,” Syracuse-based agent Joe Kehoskie, who has represented a number of Cuban defectors, said of Contreras. “He could pitch in the big leagues upon arrival in the United States.”
During the 2000 Olympics, one international scout told Baseball America, “He’s a No. 1 starter (in the big leagues), no doubt.”
The Washington Post reported Thursday that righthander Jose Ibar also was missing from the Cuban team, but USA Baseball officials at the tournament said Ibar was still with the Cuban team. Ibar defeated Team USA in the Olympics round-robin, the Americans’ only defeat, and generally is considered among Cuba’s top five pitchers with Contreras, Maels Rodriguez, Norge Vera and Pedro Luis Lazo.
Ibar, 33, struck out 10 in seven shutout innings during a 6-1 victory against the Americans in Sydney, a game in which he sparked a near-brawl by drilling Ernie Young in the shoulder with a 94 mph fastball. He showed a mid-90s fastball in that game (his 110th pitch was 97 mph on the ballpark radar gun), and also throws a forkball and curveball.
He went 2-0, 1.69 in 16 innings in the tournament, striking out 21. In three tournaments facing professionals, he’s 3-1, 2.88 with 42 strikeouts in 34 innings. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Ibar also started the game the Baltimore Orioles played in Havana, Cuba, in 1999, lasting just two innings before being replaced by Contreras.
The Cuban government did not consider Contreras a threat to defect and has not limited his travel during his seven years with the national team. In fact, a Cuban radio station from Contreras’ home province of Pinar del Rio printed the transcript of an interview with the pitcher on its Website in late September, in which Contreras said he turned down a $50 million offer to defect earlier in his career.
“For this sum, nor any other, would I turn my back on my family, on my people, or on my homeland,” he was quoted as saying. “I have a lot of respect, confidence and admiration for Fidel.”
Cuba was undefeated through six games in the 11-team tournament.
Kevin Baxter covers baseball for the Miami Herald. Herald staff writer Orlando Aloma and Baseball America senior writer John Manuel contributed to this story.