"You can't go home again" is a figurative saying in the United States, meaning once you leave the nest for the first time, it's never quite the same once you happen to go back. For athletes who defected from Cuba, ones such as major league right-hander Jose Contreras, "You can't go home again" has had a harshly literal meaning.
Since defecting in 2002, Conteras has made a lot of money pitching in the U.S. for the New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies. But unlike foreign players from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, he could never buy a ticket home because of political barriers. Making the separation even tougher for Contreras: Being unable see his mother, who has been in a hospital recovering from a limb amputation. No matter that Contreras was one of the most successful and famous Cuban athletes of the past 20 years, nicknamed "The Bronze Titan" by Fidel Castro himself — defectors weren't welcome.
Starting on Jan. 14, that began to change, and Contreras has become the first high-profile athlete to take advantage of immigration changes in Cuba that allow political defectors to visit home. CNN did a terrific feature on Contreras, including the video of him playing in a pickup game during his return:
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."
Playing baseball with your friends in a park and comforting your mom — talk about things we take for granted living here. One of these days, Cuban defectors probably are going to make these trips routinely. Someday further, athletes won't be defecting because no one will need to. That'll be a good day for Cuba, the U.S. and for baseball.
It's hard to say if Contreras will pitch in the majors again once he returns to North America. He's 41 and has been injured in recent seasons. But at least Contreras can go home again. Finally.