Ballplayers caught in U.S.-Cuba spat

When Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras, signed a four-year U.S. $32 million deal with the New York Yankees last year, his wife Myriam thought their financial problems were over.

But as her husband, who has been struggling in the majors, prepares to return to the Yankees after a two-game stint in the minors, Myriam Contreras and her two daughters remain stuck in a Pinar del Rio slum, waiting for exit visas that may never come.

Like most of the Carribean island's baseball families, the Contrerases are victims of a Cuban-American spat that has hit ballplayers particularly hard. The Cuban players' wives and children who want to join them in the U.S. face waiting times of up to five years. At the same time, U.S. law limits the help they can provide their families back home.

As a result, Myriam Contreras and her two daughters are caught in the middle. Some have speculated that the plight of José Contreras's family has affected his pitching. Talking to them, it's not hard to imagine why.

"When Jose went to the United States I lost a good friend as well as a husband," said Myriam Contreras. "He was also a very loving father who spent a lot of time with his daughters."

But while José Contreras is benefiting from all the accoutrements of a Western lifestyle, Myriam Contreras, whom he married when she was just 15, remains mired in poverty as she desperately tries to provide a decent life for her daughters Naylan who is 11, and Naylenis who is just three.

Cockroaches and mosquitoes swarm freely in their sweltering one-room first-floor apartment, which has no screens and whose doors don't shut properly. The walls are bare, and the floor is made of sidewalk cement with no tiling. The only furniture consists of a loveseat, a chair and a heating element that substitutes for a stove.

"It's hard," Contreras said. "Jose has been a ballplayer ever since I have known him, so we are used to his absences. But this is the longest that he has been away."

Despite his massive wealth, there is not a lot that José Contreras can do to help. U.S. law caps the remittances that Cuban Americans can send their families at $100 a month. That's barely enough to pay his wife's cell-phone bill and to buy one tank of gas for her car, which for the most part sits unused in the back yard. And recent measures announced by the Bush administration will make it even tougher by restricting the visits Cuban Americans can make to island to one every three years, and by cutting the amount of money they can bring along.

Myriam Contreras's cell-phone remains her lifeline to the outside world. Husband José calls regularly to speak to his daughters, doing his best to cheer them up. But that cheering sometimes goes in the opposite direction.

During his recent bad stretch on the mound his daughter Naylan comforted her father. "You may have lost the game," she said. "But you are always a winner to me."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the island Kendry Morales, one of the world's most talented ballplayers turns his thumbs, wondering if he'll ever play competitive baseball again.

Morales, first baseman for Cuban league champions the Havana Industriales and cleanup hitter with the country's national team was banned from baseball indefinitely earlier this year. His offense was to allegedly try to board a boat in the port city of Caibarien. Morales denies everything and says he was merely in town to attend a local party.

"They have no proof," said Morales in an interview last week, adding that he was never informed of the reasons for his ban. In the meantime, Morales is forced to live in his mother's home in Guacymo and bides his time playing municipal ball.

Cuban officials have no sympathy for players like Contreras and Morales.

"They are traitors," said Sigfried Barros, a writer for Gramma the communist party organ, who has been covering baseball for more than three decades.

"Morales was the best slugger in Cuban baseball, a natural cleanup hitter," Barros said. "But he threw it all away. It was a terrible mistake."


But Barros is not so sure that Contreras's is suffering from his family's absence.

"He was 7-2 last year with a 3.3 earned run average," Barros said. "He did that without his family what's changed since then?"

According to Barros, Contreras's biggest problem is that he is relying too much on his fastball.

"Here in Cuba he could just throw one heater after the other across the middle of the plate, but you can't do that in the major leagues," Barros said. "You have to use the corners a lot more."

Ray Anglada, the Industriales's manager who coached Kendry Morales for several years doesn't have much sympathy for his 21-year old protégé either.

"Cuban baseball is an amateur sport, it is not for professionals," Anglada said.

"Our players make an implicit moral bargain when they join. The state pays for their development and training, and they agree to play for their country." Angalda said. "Morales broke that contract."

In the meantime, Morales is keeping his hopes up, hoping to get a chance to play for the Cuban Olympic team, which stands a good chance of re-capturing the gold medal this year in Athens.

"All I want to do is play baseball," Morales said. "Politics don't interest me."



Photo caption: Despite husband José's wealth, wife Myriam Contreras, (shown here with daughter Naylenis), remains stuck in a Pinar del Rio slum.

Photo caption #2: Kendry Morales, Cuba's top slugger has been banned from baseball for life for allegedly trying to escape.




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