In 2002, Cuban pitcher Jose Ariel Contreras defected, signed with Yankees for $32 million
He ran the risk of never seeing Cuba again, as the government considered him a traitor
But Cuba is lifting some restrictions on those who want to travel abroad and return
Contreras, the first sports star to test the new law, returns for a visit after "years of pain"
The baseball field looks like any other where people flock to play pickup games in Cuba on the weekends.
A few blocks from the blindingly turquoise ocean, players hustle to close out innings in between slugs of Cristal beer.
But this game was different from any other being played.
It’s not just that legends of the Cuban leagues arrived throughout the morning to play on this dusty field on the outskirts of Havana. No one in the small crowd that formed even looked at them.
Instead, all eyes are on the player who should not be there: Jose Ariel Contreras.
A star pitcher in Cuba, Contreras was part of a team that won Olympic Gold, was named the Cuban athlete of the year three times and, in the 1999 game between Cuba’s national team and the Baltimore Orioles, pitched eight shutout innings.
Fidel Castro, himself once an avid pelotero, nicknamed Contreras the “Bronze Titan.”
In 2002, he defected while playing in Mexico.
After years of barely scraping out a living playing in Cuba, Contreras was signed by the New York Yankees for $32 million.
Sports stars who left Cuba for mega-salaries abroad were considered traitors by Cuba’s government. If they abandoned the island for the lure of playing in the majors, they could be barred from their homeland, never to see friends and family again.
That was until January, when authorities instituted long-hoped-for reforms, lifting many of the restrictions on Cubans who wanted to travel abroad and return to the island.
Sports stars and government officials will still need special permission to leave. But for the first time, high-level defectors like Contreras are allowed to come back.
He is the first sports star to test the new law.
“Already, in the plane, I was crying. This is something big that I had waited 10 years for,” Contreras told CNN as Cuban fans lined up to snap photos with him on cell phone cameras.
“It’s years of pain that can’t be erased, but I always had the hope that some day,” he said.
While other sports stars who left Cuba said they were uneasy about returning – afraid they could still be banned or might even be imprisoned – Contreras couldn’t wait. His mother was ill in a hospital, and he said he had been homesick every day he was away.
Other Cuban players who had defected, like Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, complained that Cubans who live abroad still needed to ask the government for a visa to return.
But Contreras said it was an important sign that the door had finally been opened to allow defectors to come back.
“They shouldn’t be afraid, and (sports stars who defected) will keep continuing to return,” he said. “It’s the dream of anyone who lives outside Cuba, to be able to return and be with your family and the fans here.”
And there is no shortage of hometown pride for Contreras. While Cuba’s government may disavow sports stars who leave to pursue careers in the United States, many Cubans quietly root for countrymen who achieve success abroad.
Throughout the pickup baseball game, players wandered off the field to embrace Contreras, some with tears in their eyes.
“I am really happy to have him back and to see each other again and remember things we did together,” Cuban pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo said. “Thank God he can come back now when he wants. We will be seeing each other a lot more now.”
Contreras said he would stay in Cuba a little while longer. His mother’s health has improved, and she is out of the hospital.
He also wanted to return to the small countryside town where he grew up and was discovered by a baseball scout while working in the fields.
Then he would go back to the United States and continue training with the hopes of playing professional baseball again.
Injuries sidelined Contreras after he played with the Yankees, White Sox and Phillies, but he said he was sure he still had a few more seasons in the majors.
He said he would take the smells, sounds and memories of Cuba back with him.
“Every time I can, I will be here,” he said. “This is my country.”