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Cuban connection on the South Side

Cuban connection on the South Side

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Imagine getting hired for a new job, a position in your field which figures to be the true challenge of a lifetime.

Now, factor into this equation how the change in employment also brings with it major relocation and causes you to be away from family for not just a few days but probably a few years.

This previous scenario presents just a brief idea as to what players such as Jose Contreras and Alexei Ramirez deal with when they decide to leave their native Cuba and play baseball in the United States.

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Ramirez, 26, will become the 15th Cuban native to play for the White Sox, assuming he breaks camp with the team for Opening Day. He could join the storied ranks represented by Minnie Minoso and 2005 playoff heroes such as Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and Contreras, who formed an unbreakable bond during their season together in Chicago.

The slender but supremely gifted infielder/outfielder will deal with the adjustments brought about by moving to the highest level of baseball competition. But much like the symbiotic bond formed between Contreras and El Duque, Ramirez will benefit by having the experienced Contreras at his side as a mentor.

"I'm happy that he's here," said Contreras through a translator, of Ramirez's decision to join the White Sox, as the duo sat down together for 15 minutes Saturday to talk about this major life change. "When he got here, I called him and we talked. Then, Alexei told me that he would like to sign with the White Sox. But I had nothing to do with it.

"He's a very good player, as you have heard. He can do a lot of things. He can throw, he can run. He can hit for power and average. That's what I saw back then. That's what everyone was talking about throughout these years, that he was one of the best players on the national team."

Although a 10-year age difference exists, Contreras and Ramirez played together for three years with Pinar Del Rio in the Cuban League. Watching a young Ramirez in action caused Contreras to take note even some seven years ago how he could be a star of the future.

Of his six full seasons in Cuba, Ramirez never finished below an average of .308 and had three seasons in which he topped the .335 mark. Ramirez also reached double-digit home runs in five seasons, including a career-best 20 in 2007, to go with his career-high 68 RBIs.

By simply watching Ramirez take part in White Sox practice through the first four days of Spring Training for position players, he has the quickness the team went in search of as an upgrade coming off of last year's dismal and sometimes plodding showing. But it's his defensive ability that has earned Ramirez rave reviews in Tucson, just as it impressed Contreras when he first witnessed Ramirez play in Cuba.

"From the first time I saw him play, he really impressed me with his glove work," said Contreras of Ramirez. "Not too many can make plays like him with the ease he does."

"I'm looking forward to doing the best I can for the team," added Ramirez through a translator. "Wherever they put me, I just want to put out 110 percent effort."

Through the early stages of life with the White Sox, Ramirez seems content but also is trying to adjust to this whirlwind of change. Unlike American players who rise from the Minor Leagues to the Majors, fulfilling a dream they've probably held close since swinging a Wiffle ball bat that was bigger than them, Cuban players live a baseball dream while also trying to avoid it becoming a personal nightmare.

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Contreras dealt with such change after defecting from Cuba in October 2002 and then eventually signing with arguably baseball's highest-profile team in the New York Yankees. The move made big news because the right-handed pitcher was a hero in Cuba, the kind of stardom far superseding the top players in the United States.

Stadium capacity in the Cuban provinces might be a bit smaller, according to Contreras, aside from the national stadium, which seats 60,000 people. But the passion for baseball almost becomes an offshoot of the Cubans' passion for life, even topping Americans' support for the national pastime.

"You can probably take away their food and they would be all right, but take away baseball and that's a big thing," said Contreras of the intense love for baseball in his native country. "In Cuba, baseball is very serious so they held me in high esteem."

Upon his arrival with the Yankees, Contreras realized life in baseball was different than anything he had known previously. These adjustments came on and off the field.

This fierce competitor with the broad smile and engaging disposition had stepped up to a higher level of play, compared to what is considered the equivalent of Double-A or Triple-A competition in Cuba, and stepped into a land where he was somewhat of a stranger. Finding himself as a less-dominant hurler for parts of two seasons in New York than he was when posting a 117-50 mark during Cuban play solely represented his on-field change.

"We have to adjust to the language, the culture, the way the food is here," Contreras said. "And that's just getting there. The players are more selective and they don't swing at just anything. So, I had to really work on pitches to get them to swing.

"Even though baseball is played at a very high level in Cuba, it doesn't compare with the players here. Here, they have multinational players from Japan, from the Dominican, from all over the world, whereas in Cuba, it's just us playing against each other.

"Everyone in Cuba is looking to play in the Major Leagues," Contreras added. "This is the highest that they can go."

Reaching the highest level comes with a price. All of these adjustments put into place by Contreras, life on his new job, were performed with his family still in Cuba. The affable big man didn't see his two daughters for three years and hasn't seen his mom or his eight brothers for five years. His father passed away three years ago, and Contreras was not able to be there with him.

"That was the most difficult thing for me," said Contreras of leaving his family behind.

Clearly, Contreras has found a second home in Chicago, looking happy and content again after going through a trying 2007 campaign -- both personally and professionally. Having an outgoing, Spanish-speaking manager such as Ozzie Guillen makes a big difference in regard to finding a comfort level, but in starting his sixth year of big league life, Contreras hopes to help facilitate an even smoother transition for Ramirez.

Ask Contreras about the biggest moment of his career, comparing impressive wins during international competition for Cuba to his work in the United States, and Contreras lists the 2005 World Series title above all others. His success led to a three-year, $29 million job promotion, of sorts, with that deal expiring after the 2009 campaign.

It was a long and bumpy road traveled by Contreras, a journey for which Ramirez is about to embark. In the end, though, the trip was worth it for the hurler, with one important goal still to be reached in the future.

"I can't wait to see my mom and my family," Contreras said. "It was a very difficult decision, but with the way things turned out, I'm not sorry that I came here.

"Overall, most Cubans who have played in the Major Leagues, El Duque, Livan Hernandez, they have all made their mark. That's what Cubans look for. Come here and make your mark."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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