The scene has rendered high emotions this past week. Jos- Contreras reunited with his wife and two young daughters after their harrowing all-night escape to freedom, huddled in a small boat all the way from Cuba to the Florida Keys.
Nearly two years ago, in October of 2002, Jos-, arguably the best pitcher to ever suit up for the talented Cuban National Team, went on a trip with the team to Mexico. It was the toughest moment of his life but, while in Mexico, he ducked out on his teammates and made it to Nicaragua, knowing full well he would be banished from his homeland forever. For everyone-s safety, he told no one in advance, not even his wife. When he reached her by phone, she was speechless. Jos- made it to New York and signed with the Yankees for $32 million over 4 years. Back in Cuba, his annual salary was $275, and each night that he took the mound to throw fastballs in those coveted pinstripes, he was half a man with the guts to pursue the just fruits that his talents warranted and he was half a man who just might never see his family again.
Meanwhile, Jos- bought a million-dollar house in Tampa and was able to call his wife by cell phone occasionally. She and the two girls were home in the province town of Pinar del Rio, living in a small, paint-chipped, two-bedroom apartment with a leaking refrigerator, continually being denied visas to leave Cuba.
So now, many lonely and sometimes hopeless months later, the Contreras family is enjoying what few like them have known before. The riches of an American ball player-s life style along with the riches of being able to live together under one roof.
The whole story moves me, as I-m sure it does you, and it throws light on an experience I had in Cuba about 8 years ago. I was in Jos- Contreras- same home town, Pinar del Rio, doing a television feature on the country-s hot third baseman, Omar Linares. He had been offered a whopping contract to play ball in the States, too, but was defiant against defecting. Omar made a speech to our camera one day that brought me close to throwing my Rolex into the Atlantic and becoming a Cuban socialist.
In answering my question as to why he didn-t take the Major Leagues offer, he asked our crew to follow him into the bedroom of his modest home. He asked me if his was a good bed. I said I didn-t know from beds. He said he-d been observing my sneakers and jeans-and Rolex-for days and was sure I would know a good bed from a bad one. So I rolled around on the bed and said -Yes, that-s a great bed.- That-s when Omar-s stirring speech began: -Look, we know we get plenty of propaganda about the United States. And you get plenty about us. That we-re all starving and Fidel beats us. But I will tell you we have what we need. And you all are killing each other and creating an epidemic of obesity and heart attacks and ulcers-.all in the name of having more than you need. So, I ask you, what should I do with the millions the Americans want to pay me to play ball and leave my family and the fans who adore me? Buy a better bed? I have what I need.- Well, Omar actually left Cuba to play in Japan years later, but his convictions at the time, impressed me profoundly. But then there-s that one factor I constantly seem to forget. If life is so idyllic in Cuba, if it truly is a happy people who have what they need, then why is travel forbidden? To deny an individual the right to leave the country fires a glaring red flag that there is fear, even certainty, that the individual will never return. So today, when I see Jos- Contreras hugging his wife and children, free, the pictures don-t demean the wonderful experiences I-ve had in Cuba, or keep me from wanting to visit Havana again as soon as possible. But I do realize that I-ve been seeing Cuban life through a pair of rose-colored glasses.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that-s The Score.