Relief pitcher Jose Contreras of the Philadelphia Phillies throws a pitch during a game against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park on May 22, 2012. (Getty Images)

Cuban defector Jose Contreras becomes first athlete allowed to return to island

HAVANA, CUBA  – Major League Baseball pitcher Jose Ariel Contreras Camejo is in Cuba tending to a family matter. This makes him the first Cuban athlete to return to the country under the new immigration policy, after leaving the island to play professional baseball.  In a phone interview with NBC News, Contreras denied having any problems entering the island.

“If there had been a problem, they would have sent me back,” said Contreras on the phone before declining a more extended interview. “I do not want to talk to anyone about what I am sharing with my family.”

His brother Humberto Demetrio previously stated that Contreras traveled to Cuba because his mother had to undergo a limb amputation and is recovering in the Salvador Allende Hospital.

Under the new immigration guidelines adopted on January 14, Cubans who left the country through irregular channels in the 90s and had spent eight years outside of the country since their emigration would be allowed to make temporary visits.

An official Cuban online encyclopedia, that usually labels athletes who leave their teams to turn pro as “deserters,” omitted the derogatory label under Contreras’ encyclopedia entry.  Instead it describes Contreras as “one of the best pitchers in the country since 1962, with impressive numbers” during the decade that he played in the national tournament, where he won 117 games, lost 50 and had 1,346 strikeouts.

On one occasion, then president Fidel Castro called Contreras the “Bronze Titan” for his athletic achievements, praise that equated him to Antonio Maceo, one of the heroes of independence of Cuba.

When Contreras was in Mexico in 2002, he defected to the United States to fulfill his dream of playing in the U.S. Major Leagues and became a millionaire.

Contreras now returns to Cuba where he has many admirers, especially in his hometown, Pinar del Rio, home to other excellent pitchers who are not representing Cuba in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

Translated by NBC Latino staff.

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