TUCSON — Jose Contreras was so excited to hear about the permanent transition of power in his native Cuba that he couldn't go back to sleep. Instead, after he heard the news at 3 a.m., the Chicago White Sox right-hander read as much as he could on the Internet about the transfer of power from longtime dictator Fidel Castro, who is in failing health, to brother Raul Castro. "This is great news," said Contreras, who defected in October 2002. "Friends have told me there's been a big difference (under Raul), and also Raul's comments have indicated they need to make changes, and in fact he's carried out some."
Though Cuba has a tradition of baseball excellence, only eight Cuban-born players were in the majors last season, all defectors. The White Sox's Alexei Ramirez is expected to join the group this year.
Baseball executives have long wanted free access to signing Cuban talent, and New York Mets general manager Omar Minaya said he hopes Tuesday's development is a step in that direction.
"Hopefully, there will be a day that players will be allowed to play here without defecting," Minaya said.
Others were more skeptical, including Minnesota Twins right-hander Livan Hernandez.
"He plays with people," Hernandez said. "One day they say Fidel is dead. Everybody celebrates. The next day, he comes on TV and says, 'Hi. Hi.' "
Contributing: Seth Livingstone in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Glenn Miller of the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press