It was Fidel Castro who invoked the name of Cuba's greatest warrior. "El Titan de Bronze!" he declared, the Bronze Titan. It was a gross exaggeration because Antonio Maceo -- the original "El Titan de Bronze" -- was his country's greatest warrior, a man who fought 900 battles and absorbed 26 bullet wounds before dying in combat in 1896 during the Cuban War of Independence against the Spanish.
All Jose Contreras did was beat the U.S. baseball team in the Pan American Games.
But Castro was so moved that he bestowed the revered moniker on his nation's top pitcher. The nickname stuck and soon New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wanted his own Bronze Titan. He got his wish three years ago after Contreras walked out of a hotel in Saltillo, Mexico, while traveling with the Cuban national team. Only the Contreras that Steinbrenner purchased for $32 million was no Bronze Titan. In less than two seasons before his unceremonious dumping to the White Sox, Contreras was considered a disaster.
Who knows where Contreras would be had he not fallen into the hands of Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, a tough-talking New Yorker who growls like a cab driver and loves to shout "El Titan de Bronze!" at his team's new ace. Somehow they formed a bond, the Bronze Titan and his brash pitching coach. And somewhere in that friendship he learned to pitch again.
So well, in fact, that the White Sox have made the reportedly 34-year-old Contreras Tuesday's starter in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series -- despite the fact that all-star Jon Garland has been waiting 10 days to pitch.
"The confidence I have received from my manager and my pitching coach Don Cooper," Contreras said through an interpreter Monday when asked what has made him one of the American League's best pitchers the second half of the season. "I think my pitching coach and my manager have been really patient."
Back in the clubhouse, Cooper smiled. For all his bluster, he also has a soft side that comes spilling out when he talks about his prized pupil.
"The thing is his confidence is where it needs to be," Cooper said. "It was missing before because he didn't know where the ball was going. Power isn't velocity. Power is knowing where you can make the pitch and then actually making it. Everything was out of kilter when he first got here, but we weathered the storm."
The first time they met they talked about ways for Contreras to regain his confidence. Contreras said he had started to feel better once his wife and two children were able to escape Cuba early during the 2004 season. So Cooper set about studying his new pitcher, trying to detect physical flaws. He urged Contreras to rely on throwing his fastball in the strike zone, rather than trying to place it somewhere just out of the batter's reach. And there was another problem: "He was tipping his pitches big time!" Cooper said.
Contreras was slow to believe his coach. So Cooper brought him into a conference room at spring training with fellow Cuban Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and Venezuelan Freddy Garcia to watch tapes of Contreras pitching.
Soon, Hernandez and Garcia began to laugh and curse in their native Spanish. "What are you doing?" they shouted. Contreras nodded. At last he understood. And thus began the reclamation of the Bronze Titan.
It was a slow progression. Contreras pitched well early this season, struggled mightily in June and July and then blossomed in August, winning his last eight starts to finish 15-7. Chicago Manager Ozzie Guillen made him the Game 1 starter in the Division Series against Boston, passing over Garland, who won 18 games this year.
But this is how good Contreras became. Confidence begot comfort. Catcher Chris Widger noticed how Contreras's humor improved, along with his English. Something was different in Contreras, the change was obvious. The Bronze Titan was back. It was worth the wait.
"The guy came from Cuba right to the big leagues," Cooper said. "I'm not sure the level of baseball in Cuba, but there are things you need to learn at another level before you can succeed here."
Now he has.