Veteran pitcher Jose Contreras eager to make impact with Pittsburgh Pirates

Veteran pitcher Jose Contreras looks to make comeback

jlembo@bradenton.comFebruary 25, 2013 

BRADENTON -- During his time as an American baseball player, Jose Contreras won a World Series, helped refuel one of sports' fiercest rivalries and attended the funeral of his father over a telephone.

It's been anything but boring.

On Sunday morning, the former Cuba great stood in the corner of the Pittsburgh Pirates' home clubhouse at McKechnie Field and started perhaps another chapter of his career.

His employers hope it is a successful one.

The Pirates announced the signing of the 41-year-old Contreras to a minor-league contract on Saturday. A day later, he had reported to Bradenton, hours before the Pirates played their Grapefruit League home-opener against the Atlanta Braves.

"I want to make sure to say thank you to the Pirates," Contreras said through interpreter Heberto Andrade, "for giving me the opportunity to be here."

Pittsburgh is hopeful it's a two-way street, even though Contreras underwent Tommy John surgery in his elbow in June 2012.

"First and foremost, we've got to get him healthy and that's going to take time," said General Manager Neal Huntington. "He's coming off Tommy John surgery. If we get him back to (what) he's been in the past, that's a very productive pitcher and we'll see where he falls in the bullpen. If he gets back to where he was, he can be a very productive member of our bullpen."

Named Cuba's athlete of the year three times, Contreras defected to the United States in 2002 and was the target of a bidding war between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees before the 2003 season, ultimately choosing New York, which lead Boston owner Larry Lucchino to slap the Yankees with the infamous Evil Empire tag.

Though Contreras never found success in New York, he was dealt to the Chicago White Sox in 2004 and a year later helped the franchise win the World Series.

It wasn't all good, though. Contreras' father passed away not long after he left, and a defector, he wasn't permitted to return to Cuba. He had to listen to the ceremony over the phone.

Recently, however, he returned home for the first time in over 11 years.

"It was a really good feeling. I was so excited to be there with my family," he said. "Unfortunately, I had to go there because my mom (had) health problems. She is recovering, little by little. For me to get back again with

my family, friends, people I played with and most importantly, the fans. It's one thing to say it, and another thing to be there again."

Relieved after a brief reunion with his loved ones, Contreras, who is 78-67 with a 4.55 ERA in 1,168 innings, is focused on getting back to another love -- baseball.

He has thrown off a mound three times since the invasive surgery, and Huntington said reports of a healthy Contreras in 2011 were promising.

"All the reports we have on the man are he can be a strong influence on our clubhouse while he's here," Huntington said. "We're looking forward to getting him on the mound as a pitcher, but one of the secondary benefits could be the influence he has on some of our young guys."

In the meantime, Contreras said he is in no rush.

"I need to keep doing my rehab and time will tell. My arm will tell when I'm ready, and then I'll go from there," he said. "I have no regrets. It was the best decision I ever made in my life, to come here and play in the best baseball league in the world."

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