By Kevin Baxter
October 10, 2002
Photo: Patty Ortin
MIAMI–The agent for Cuban defector José Ariel Contreras says he will take whatever steps are necessary–including suing Major League Baseball–to have his client declared a free agent.
“What we will do is eventually secure his status as a free agent in order to be able to negotiate with all 30 clubs,” Miami attorney Jaime Torres said. “Whatever steps are necessary to do that, we’ll take.”
At stake is a signing bonus potentially worth millions of dollars. One baseball source, who requested anonymity, said the contract Contreras could demand would top the four-year, $14.5 million pact Danys Baez got from the Indians when he defected in 1999.
A lawyer for Major League Baseball says that if Contreras remains in the U.S., he’ll be subject to the draft and will be able to negotiate only with the team that selects him. That would significantly limit his bargaining power.
But if he establishes residency in a third country, as Baez and many other Cuban defectors have done, he’ll be treated as a free agent under baseball rules and can sell his services to the highest bidder.
At a press conference here Thursday, Torres suggested he’d rather challenge baseball’s rules than force Contreras to give up U.S. residency.
“My position right now is that he’s a free agent,” Torres said. “I disagree with baseball’s policy about making Cubans gain residency in another country.
“I’ve been practicing law for quite a while and I’ve been representing players for over 17 years, so I think I’m very much aware of the legal(ities). All of that will be taken into consideration.”
Contreras, 30, along with longtime Cuban sports official Miguel Valdes, 53, walked away from the Cuban national team Oct. 1 in Saltillo, Mexico. He was widely considered the best pitcher in Cuba, where he has dominated for the past seven years. He has a lifetime record of 117-50 in Cuban league play, including a 13-4 record and league-best 1.76 ERA this season.
But he’s better known in the U.S. for the eight shutout innings he pitched against the Orioles in a 1999 exhibition in Havana. In that game, Contreras gave up just two hits while striking out 10, including Albert Belle twice. Torres said Contreras’ fastball was clocked at 98 mph last week in a game against Nicaragua at the tournament in Mexico where he defected. He also has a slider, curveball and changeup.
Both Valdes and Contreras, dapper in new suits, appeared rested and happy after a nine-day adventure that included five days in an Immigration and Naturalization Services detention center.
Contreras, who admitted the media attention he’s received has made him nervous, said he has spoken to his wife and two daughters in Cuba and hopes to be reunited with them here soon.
“One of the first steps we’re going to jump on right away is we’re going to try to get their families to join them,” Torres said.
Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila says Contreras, a 6-foot-4, 224-pound righthander has major league stuff but may need a period of adjustment before establishing himself in the big leagues. But other teams didn’t hedge as much.
The Red Sox held a special meeting, partly to discuss Contreras, and team president Larry Lucchino said the pitcher would be “a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the big leagues.”
“There is interest,” Red Sox spokesman Kevin Shea said. “We’re evaluating him.”
Torres said he has no plans to hold a special tryout for Contreras because most teams have already scouted him in international tournaments. He said he has received calls from several major league teams, including the Yankees.
“He’s good enough and teams are going to be interested in him whether he’s 31 or 25 or 35,” the agent said. “Even if he was 35 or 37, I still think it would be the same interest. You have a (Curt) Schilling, you have a (Randy) Johnson, you have a (Roger) Clemens performing at this level now, at 39 and 40. That’s the type of pitcher we have.”
Torres said he’s known Valdes for 10 years and Contreras since 1995, but said he did not push them to defect.
“When (Valdes) told me he was going to do this, of course I was going to help him,” Torres said. “At the same time I had the opportunity to help Contreras.”
Torres said he could not inform either man of the other’s plan in case one of them backed out. So when Valdes, a coach and official with the Cuban Sports Ministry, showed up at the airport in Monterrey, Mexico, Contreras thought his escape had been discovered.
“We were sitting at the gate at the airport and (Valdes) walks in,” Torres said with a laugh. “And (Contreras) turned white.”
From Monterrey, the men flew to Tijuana, then entered the U.S. south of San Diego. They were detained for five days by the INS before Torres bonded them out. They are currently on parole pending an immigration hearing.
Major League Baseball has been sued over its draft policy before, most recently a year ago when Rolando Viera, a Cuban lefthander who had legally won a U.S. visa, was placed into the draft. Although still considered a Cuban citizen by the U.S. and Cuban governments, Viera was denied his request to become a free agent because the court ruled it was his intention to become a U.S. resident. The Red Sox eventually chose him in the seventh round and offered him a $175,000 signing bonus.
Even if Torres was able to establish third-country residency for Contreras, there’s no guarantee Major League Baseball will accept it. Last year the commissioner’s office rejected claims by defectors Mayque Quintero and Evel Bastida, both pitchers, because the color copies of the passports the players submitted could not be verified as legitimate.
Kevin Baxter covers baseball for the Miami Herald.