TAMPA, Fla. -- A week and a half ago, a struggling 31-year-old rookie pitcher left the Yankees' training camp in Tampa and drove across the causeway to watch his idol pitch.
When he climbed into that car, Jose Contreras had a spring-training ERA of 16.88. So no wonder he was looking for inspiration. And no one was more suited to provide it than a man who once had walked in Contreras' spikes -- Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez.
"He's a great pitcher," Contreras says of his Cuban countryman, El Duque. "But he's a better person."
Five months after his defection, six weeks after signing with the Yankees, Contreras watched El Duque throw three nearly perfect shutout innings for the Expos that day. And as Contreras watched, he could feel himself turning a very significant corner.
"I saw how relaxed and easy he was throwing," Contreras says. "I'd been pitching with a lot of pressure, a lot of anxiousness. But to see how relaxed he was ... it was like he was playing a computer game."
A few days after watching and visiting with El Duque, Contreras went out and pitched five overpowering innings against the Devil Rays. He allowed two hits, hit 96 mph on the radar guns and finally commanded his biting slider and dancing forkball.
Where he goes from here, no one knows yet. But if he turns into the top-of-the-rotation starter the Yankees envision him to be, he will do more than prove he was worth the 32 million American dolares the Yankees will pay him over the next four years:
More important, he will prove that Cuban pitchers as a whole can still be worth all the time and money that has been spent -- and largely wasted -- on them over the last decade.
Since 1993, when a Cuban pitcher named Rene Arocha defected and eventually reached the big leagues with the Cardinals, a dozen Cuban-born pitchers have pitched in the major leagues. They're a combined nine games under .500.
But if you subtract El Duque, who is 53-38 lifetime, the other 11 are a combined 24 games below .500. And the only one in the group with a career ERA under 4.00 is Indians closer Danys Baez, at 3.96.
"At this point," says Mike Arbuckle, the Phillies' assistant GM for scouting and player development, "we'd have to think twice about making a large commitment to a Cuban pitcher, just because we're concerned about the track record. Maybe El Duque was what he was advertised to be -- at least in the short term. But by and large, none of these guys has reached the ceiling he was advertised to have."
Oh, Livan Hernandez did have a spectacular October for the Marlins in 1997. Rolando Arrojo won 14 games for the 1998 Devil Rays and finished in the top 10 in the league in ERA. Ariel Prieto was once a No. 1 draft pick in Oakland. Baez and Florida's Vladimir Nunez may still have a dominating future in short relief.
But in general, considering the dollars lavished on them all and the tantalizing mystique they brought with them across the seas, the Cubans have been one of baseball's most monumental disappointments of modern times.
"I know we learned a big lesson in Oakland," says Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi, a member of the Oakland braintrust in 1995 when the A's decided to make Prieto the fifth player chosen in the entire amateur draft. "We all saw Prieto. We all loved him. He had a great arm. The ball came out of his hand real easy. We thought he'd pitch in the big leagues quick.
"But in hindsight," Ricciardi says now, "I would have liked to have seen more of him and gotten more history on him. That's always one of the problems in evaluating the Cubans. There are always questions about their history. As much as you think you know them because you've watched them, you really don't know them -- because you can't."
You can't, because they come from a true land of mystery, where few Americans have traveled, where proof of age is nonexistent, where reputations have been built on years of beating up on inferior amateur competition.
"I think a mystique has developed around these guys," Arbuckle says. "They're coming from Cuba, this great and mysterious place that is supposed to have a mother lode of talent. And because of that, we've tended to overevaluate them. We've been seeing them compete on a daily basis against lesser-ability players. ... But you never know how a guy is going to react when he has to go, day-in and day-out, against guys with more ability than he has."
We've surveyed a number of scouts and baseball men in recent weeks about the modern crop of Cuban pitchers. Most declined to be quoted. But their frustrations essentially come down to these areas:
1. Fictitious ages.
2. Inability to scout the Cubans against legitimate competition.
3. And, especially, an understandable lack of motivation to be great.
We are talking about men who have led their entire lives in an oppressed, dictatorial state. We are talking about men who had to survive on an income of as little as $10 a month. We are talking about men whose dreams of escaping Cuba revolve more around freedom than stardom.
"After spending their whole lives eating on $10 a month," Arbuckle says, "a lot of these guys feel they've already reached the end of the rainbow just by getting here -- to a situation where there are good meals on the table every day, a nice place to live and a little money in their pocket. It's hard for them to comprehend that this is really just their starting point. When you're coming from nothing, it's easy for other things to become your priority."
But Gordon Blakeley, the Yankees' longtime director of international scouting, says the critics seem to be forgetting that priorities can be a problem for any player -- no matter where he comes from.
"That's a question you have to ask about anybody, even American players -- who can you trust with a long-term contract?" Blakeley says. "It's not only the Cubans. It's human nature."
Blakeley concedes that signing a Cuban can be "a gamble." He agrees that the Cubans can be hard to scout, harder to get to know and a challenge to assemble any kind of reliable background on. But he disagrees with the premise that, as a group, these men never lived up to their hype.
"Most of these guys didn't get much hype," he says. "They weren't thought to be that high-caliber. I thought Arrojo would pitch better than he has. I thought he'd do really well for three or four years. We had interest in Arrojo. But other than him, Livan and El Duque, none of the others were really interesing to us."
Well, whatever the concerns might be about the other Cubans, Blakeley is convinced that the guy currently wearing Yankees pinstripes won't disappoint anybody.
The Yankees have seen enough of him for years to be confident he's really 31. They were lucky enough to watch him throw eight shutout innings against the Orioles in Cuba four years ago, so they've seen him against real major-league hitters. (No Orioles jokes, please.) And if his stuff wasn't ace-type stuff, why were the Red Sox and Mariners working so hard this winter to keep him away from the Yankees?
So if another Cuban as talented as Jose Contreras were to reach the market, the Yankees would be right back in line, Blakeley says.
"We wouldn't hesitate," he says, "if it's the kind of guy we like and he's a fit. If you've done your homework and the guy has got talent, why would you hesitate? That's what it's all about, right? ... Talent."
But of course, those other teams suggest, that's easy for the Yankees to say.
"If you're the Yankees and you have unlimited resources and the guy doesn't turn out to be what you hoped, you just go on to the next guy," Arbuckle says. "But most teams don't have that luxury. Most teams have finite resources. ... So to make that kind of commitment in dollars and length of contract, that's pretty risky business."
And remember, no previous Cuban had ever gotten the kind of commitment or dollars that Jose Contreras just raked in. So as his career unfolds these next four years, he'll be pitching for more than simply himself and that team in the Bronx. He might singlehandedly determine just how much Havana daydreaming the rest of baseball will feel like doing come manana.
If you've listened closely these last few months, you could hear more than the sound of agents complaining about collusion. You could also hear them complaining about each other.
So amid grumbling about unethical behavior and client-stealing, numerous agents report that the Players Association recently made a move to crack down on at least one area of potential agent misbehavior.
The union has banned all agents from staging All-Star Game parties, effective with this July's game in Chicago. In a memo distributed to agents earlier this month, the union informed agents that there were concerns that the parties -- some of which had become major bashes -- were being used for "recruiting" purposes. Which was inspiring more agents to consider holding competing parties. Which was creating an impression of "solicitation mischief."
So without passing judgment on whether that mischief was actually taking place, the union concluded that the parties, whatever their purpose, weren't worth the "ill will" they were generating. And not just among other agents.
MLB reportedly had lodged a complaint that agent parties were beginning to draw players and other baseball people away from the official All-Star Gala, which was scheduled at the same time.
Whatever and whomever this policy was meant to satisfy, it's one that most agents are applauding.
"Does it make any sense for an agent who has two or three All-Stars to be throwing a party that lavish?" asks one agent. "You're competing not just with the gala, but with the union's own party. And what's the point? You're not throwing a party of that magnitude for two or three All-Stars and their families, or even four or five. The suggestion has been that it's a recruiting tool, and that's obviously what it is."
And the union isn't expected to stop there. Other measures being contemplated are random audits of agents' books, an accounting of loans to players, unusual fees, etc. It's about time.
All over the map, heads are still scratching, among agents and even some other club officials, over Oakland's announcement that it couldn't sign Miguel Tejada -- before it ever seriously negotiated with him.
One of Oakland owner Steve Schott's prime motives, obviously, was to dramatize his team's need for a new ballpark. But he's not getting one in Oakland, and trumping up a new Miguel Tejada crisis hasn't changed anything.
"That team needs to move," says one prominent baseball man. "Period."
What was especially outrageous, though, was Schott complaining about "the system" in baseball forcing him into this situation -- before Season One of the new labor deal, which he voted for in the name of competitive balance, could even begin.
"What good-faith effort did that team make to sign Tejada?" one agent fumes. "They made none. OK, if you make a good-faith effort and then you reach an impasse, then you can say you don't have the resources to sign the guy. But how do they even know?"
Let us remind you that a billion dollars in revenue sharing money will change hands over the life of this new labor deal. Teams like the A's will be prime receivers of that money. The market, especially for star players, has already begun plummeting back to earth. The spirit in which that labor deal was negotiated was supposedly all about restoring competitive balance.
So how can baseball allow an owner to announce he can't sign his biggest star before he sees how this new labor deal works? The commish has fined other owners for remarks far less injurious to the image of the game than that.
The Rangers are working feverishly to export Carl Everett. And one team with definite interest is the Devil Rays, whose team batting average this spring has been threatening to submerge below .230.
Braves right-hander Paul Byrd's elbow problems may force him onto the DL. One GM whose team looked into Byrd this winter says his club backed off because of concerns about Byrd's elbow. So he predicts: "I'm not so sure this is going away."
Twins ownership took a lot of abuse a few years ago for not spending money. But now that they have a team with a chance to win, you have to give them credit for finding an extra $2 million to sign Kenny Rogers in the middle of spring training after Eric Milton went down.
Most spring-training numbers mean about as much as PlayStation numbers. But we might make an exception in Mike Hampton's case. Hampton has faced 70 hitters this spring -- and struck out only four of them (three of which came in his start Monday against St. Louis). He had a 7.07 ERA, and he'd allowed 31 baserunners in 14 innings.
"As much as they say they're not concerned, I think they're concerned," says one scout. "He's made a lot of mistakes up in the zone."
Another club official, whose team has faced Hampton this spring, says: "I'd be less surprised if he won five games than if he won 15."
"I called our owner (Carl Pohlad)," says GM Terry Ryan. "And I said, 'Kenny Rogers is out there. If you give me the wherewithal, I'd like to take a run at him.' He called me back in a couple of hours and told me what I had to offer."
It's believed Rogers actually turned down more money ($3 million) from the White Sox last month. But a call from Minnesota player rep Denny Hocking, talking up the chemistry and defense of the Twins, seemed to get Rogers' attention.
"A player can tell him things that a general manager can't," Ryan says. "Denny could say, 'This is a good place to play -- good manager, good clubhouse, good defense.' And I think players listen to that. Plus, it was getting deep into spring training, and I think he was getting antsy. He was there the next day and ready to pitch. I know that."
The Twins actually think Rogers could take his turn in the rotation the first week of the season, although they'll probably back him off until at least April 6 (Game 6).
We're just getting to the point where teams are starting to shop for Opening-Day needs. But nobody has been more aggressive early in the shopping season than the Orioles. Clubs that have spoken to them say they're marketing Sidney Ponson, Jason Johnson, B.J. Ryan, Melvin Mora and even Buddy Groom in a quest for more offense.
Speaking of Griffey, his legs and balance at the plate have looked much better this spring. One scout says: "He's ready to have a monster year. I think he got the kick in the butt that he needed -- from himself."
While the Royals continue to talk about Beltran with several clubs, two GMs say they think it's more and more likely Beltran will be a trade-deadline deal, not a spring-training deal. And the Royals can forget getting Hank Blalock for Beltran. Clubs that have inquired about Blalock say Texas GM John Hart is almost adamant about holding onto both Blalock and Mark Teixeira.
The Mets continue to tell suitors that they're not interested in trading their most advanced pitching prospect, Aaron Heilman, even in a deal for Mike Lowell. But one scout who has seen a lot of Heilman says: "I'm not even sold on him. I'm not sure he's more than an end-of-the-rotation guy. He's got no real dominating pitch. He's not a power guy, and he hangs a lot of breaking balls."
Teams that have talked to the Mets say they're still trying to package Jeromy Burnitz or an excess outfielder with a lesser prospect in whatever trade they make. But their willingness to take on money at least gives them a shot at some kind of deal.
The Reds are still looking to cut $3 million in payroll. They've tried to interest the Phillies in Scott Sullivan all spring, but don't look for that one to happen. The Phillies did begin sniffing around for set-up help this week, though, after Turk Wendell experienced elbow soreness in an outing Monday.
The Phillies also are poking around for another catcher, in case Mike Lieberthal's pelvic injury lingers, the way a similar injury did in 1998. It appeared to be no coincidence that the Yankees started John Flaherty in a game this week against the Phillies.
The Padres and Yankees have completed a deal that sends Rondell White to San Diego for Bubba Trammell and minor-league pitcher Mark Phillips, who was the Padres' first-round pick (ninth overall) in the 2000 draft. Prior to making the trade for White, the Padres were also interested in Raul Mondesi. But one baseball man who has been monitoring the Yankees-Padres talks says, flatly: "That deal is not going to happen." Not as long as the Padres ask the Yankees to pay $6 million of the $7 million they owe Mondesi.
The Yankees are more willing to pay most of Sterling Hitchcock's $6-million contract, simply because Hitchcock has no meaningful role to play, barring massive injuries. But while several clubs (Rockies, Dodgers, Expos, Reds) have scouted Hitchcock, only Colorado appears to have anything more than mild interest.
The Phillies' coaching staff has had some concerns about rookie center fielder Marlon Byrd. But despite reports that they looked into Kenny Lofton and Tampa Bay's Jason Conti, multiple sources say they had no interest in either.
Scouts continue to remark about how uncomfortable Byrd has looked all spring, on offense and defense. But even as he starts to find his swing, one scout says he's surprised by how much trouble Byrd has had reading and tracking fly balls in center field. The Phillies tried having him play more shallow, then moved him deeper again this week. At any rate, Ricky Ledee, who just went on a 10-for-14 tear, could play a lot more than anticipated. It's also possible Bobby Abreu could see some time in center.
One Phillie nobody has been disappointed in is Jim Thome -- and not just because he hit the longest opposite-field home run anyone could remember Monday in Clearwater (over the scoreboard in left-center), or an even longer grand slam Tuesday. You don't find many $85-million men sitting in the dugout during spring-training games in which they're not even in the lineup. But Thome has done it regularly all spring.
"This guy is un-bleeping-believable," says Phillies third base coach John Vukovich. "I keep looking for a chink in his armor, but there ain't any. He loves baseball. I haven't seen him come in any morning when he wasn't in a great mood, just to be at the ballpark. He's one of the first ones here, and he's blended in quicker than anybody could imagine."
One of the big guessing games this spring is trying to predict where Vladimir Guerrero could wind up next year as a free agent if the Expos aren't able to keep him.
"How about Baltimore?" wonders one baseball man. "Peter Angelos has the money. And Vlad is familiar with (executive VP) Jim Beattie."
"I can't see him in a city like New York," says an NL executive. "I don't know if they have the money, but Houston would be a perfect spot for a guy like him. It's a city with a lot of diversity and a big Latin American population. I can see him there."
One big question teams might face with a player like Guerrero is that he's so shy, he might be a tough player for some clubs to justify giving a quasi-historic contract to. He sure won't be A-Rod, out there pumping hands and being a spokesman for just about everything.
"The way I look at it," says the same NL executive, "you have three kinds of players. Player A is a guy with a great personality and presence. Player C is a guy who's a great player, but he's so off the wall that when he does speak, you wish he'd kept his mouth shut. And Player B is the great player who just plays and doesn't say a whole lot.
"Tell you what, I'd take Player B every day of the week. To me, there isn't as much difference between Player A and Player B as there is between B and C. If a guy's a five-tool player and he plays hard every day, I don't care what he does or doesn't say."
Everybody roots for Steve Avery to make it back. But one scout who watched his two shutout innings against the Braves last weekend says: "I heard people say he'd taken a big step forward. But he did it at 77 miles an hour. He might have hit 78 or 79 once or twice, but his fastball was constantly in the 70s."
You may not be seeing any major-league players in the Olympics. But Hideki Matsui's Yankees contract contains language that allows him to play for Japan in the next Olympic qualifying tournament, which is held after the season, in November. If he gets hurt, the Japanese are responsible for any and all ramifications.
The contract does not allow Matsui to leave the Yankees in midseason to play for the Japanese Olympic team. And there actually has been some wrangling inside MLB over the legality of even including the Olympic-qualifying provision. But a major-league official says he expects that portion of the contract to be approved eventually.
Two years ago, the Indians drew close to 3.2 million fans. Last year, they were down to 2.6 million. With Jim Thome gone and roster renovations underway, they're projecting 1.8 million this year.
"That's probably where we are in core fans now," says GM Mark Shapiro. "And that's probably about where we'll be until we win again. But at least that's a lot better than when our core was a million, back in the late '80s."
But you no longer hear anyone in the organization talk about this club not being able to win until 2005, because their young players have dazzled scouts all over Florida. Biggest eye-openers: second baseman Brandon Phillips, first baseman Travis Hafner, outfielder Jody Gerut (one of baseball's many former Russian History majors) and pitcher Jeremy Guthrie.
Finally, loyal reader Jerry Bodlander reports that the Washington Post's "In the Loop" column recently asked some folks to nominate choices for people to govern post-war Iraq. Among the selections were two familiar-looking names:
-- Orioles owner Peter Angelos -- "because of his experience in transforming a perennial powerhouse into a non-threat."
-- And good old Bud Selig himself -- billed as "baseball's gain, Iraq's loss."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.