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Cuban Baseball Defector Denies Decision Was Political - 2002-10-10


A star pitcher who recently defected from Cuba's national baseball team in Mexico has resurfaced in Miami, Florida, along with a baseball agent who is already touting his client's pitching prowess.

Baseball observers say Jose Contreras could be the most talented player ever to defect from Cuba. Until recently, the ace pitcher of Cuba's national baseball team, the 31-year-old Mr. Contreras boasts a blazing fastball clocked at more than 150 kilometers an hour. His career record in Cuba was 117 wins and just 50 losses. He gained notoriety in the United States in 1999, when he gave up just two hits over eight innings in a nationally-televised exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles.

Mr. Contreras and a coach deserted the national team last week in Mexico. They entered the United States near Tijuana, where they were picked up by U.S. immigration agents.

Cuban officials have expressed shock and outrage over the desertion, accusing the men of betraying their nation's trust. At a news conference in Miami Thursday, Jose Contreras stressed that his defection had nothing to do with politics.

Mr. Contreras said he does not see his defection as a traitorous act. He said he, like everyone else, deserves to be able to apply himself in his chosen filed. He went on to say the United States has the best baseball in the world and that he wants the chance to prove himself here as a pitcher.

In defecting, Jose Contreras left behind a wife and two children. He says he does not believe his family will face reprisals from Cuban officials, but adds that he hopes they will be able to join him in the United States in the near future.

Mr. Contreras' agent, Jaime Torrez, indicated several major league clubs are already expressing interest in the pitcher. He didn't give details, but said Jose Contreras is sure to succeed in the major leagues.

"He [Contreras] wants to play baseball. I am not going to find him a job as an engineer and I am not going to get him to play in the NFL [American football], he said. "So, yes, we will see if we can get him to the big leagues and I am sure he can."

In order to become a free agent, Mr. Contreras would have to establish residency in a third country, as several other Cuban defectors have done in years past. Otherwise, he would be subject to next year's U.S. amateur baseball draft and would be limited to negotiating with the team that selects him.

In Cuba, baseball players earn the equivalent of $20 a month. The new minimum salary for a major league player is $300,000 dollars a year.

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