You Don’t Have to Play Like a Refugee

With a four year, $4.75 million dollar deal, multi-position exile Alexei Ramirez becomes the latest addition to Project White Sox. While Ramirez put up outstanding numbers in both the Cuban league and the 2006 World Baseball Classic – and can play both second base and centerfield – it’s tough to say just how well any of that will translate to MLB success.

Ramirez hit .335 last year in Cuba and is sixth on that nation’s all-time career average list (.334), but no one really knows the exact level of MLB talent that equates to, although the most common speculation is high A-level. Cuban clubs also only boast 11-man rosters; the lack of depth either indicates ultra-strict quality control or extremely limited league resources. Or both.
(For those wondering, references to Ramirez have not been removed from the official website of the Cuban national league.)

More tellingly, the Sox’ latest purchase put up a .375 average, .489 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage in the WBC; not too shabby considering the pitching in Cuba’s pool included Johan Santana, Javier Vazquez and, in the final, tourney MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka. Then again, that was only an eight-game tournament and basing everything on those numbers would be akin to handing Lance Broadway a Cy Young based on those four games he pitched relief this year.

So really, what have we got? Nothing, except for maybe the brief, sometimes sordid, sometimes stellar history of Cuban players who’ve found asylum on the South Side. Ramirez could be a star . . . or he could end up in jail and dodging Congressional questions:

Saturnino Orestes Armas “Minnie” Minoso Arrieta (OF, 1951-1957, 1960-1961, 1964, 1976, 1980): Originally signed by Cleveland in 1949, Minnie was a star during his time with the Sox. Hitting over .300 in nine of his twelve seasons here while winning two Gold Gloves and going to six All-Star Games, Minnie sits in fifth place on the franchise’s all-time runs scored list, eighth in hits, sixth in doubles, seventh in triples, fifth in RBI and sixth in walks. In 1980, owner Bill Veeck made him the first player to ever play in five different decades by signing him to a three-game contract. In 1983, Minnie’s number 9 was retired, and in 2004 he was immortalized in a statue on the outfield concourse at Sox Park.

Jose Canseco (RF/DH, 2001): Canseco was a Rookie of the Year, American League MVP, first member of the 40/40 club, six-time All-Star, two-time World Series winner and Simpsons guest star before arriving on the South Side. After the Sox purchased his contract midway through the 2001 season, Canseco hit .258 with 16 home runs and 49 RBI before being granted free agency that fall, sign with the Expos the next spring, be released by the Expos two months later, re-signed by the Sox in April, then released outright following the 2002 season without playing a single game at the major league level that season. Also following his unceremonious 2001 season, Canseco was arrested for aggravated battery after he and his brother Ozzie punched out two tourists at a nightclub in Miami Beach. He would later write some book about baseball to get himself out of hock.

Jose Contreras (RHP, 2004-present): A three-time Athlete of the Year in Cuba and ace of the Cuban National Team that dominated the rest of the world, El Conte was for a time considered the best pitcher in the world. After he was unable to contain the Red Sox the way the Yankees needed him to, he was traded to the South Side at the 2004 trading deadline for Esteban Loaiza, another pitcher who was by most definitions out of gas at the big-league level. Contreras showed flashes of brilliance, but between the 2005 and 2006 All-Star breaks was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Contreras posted ERA’s of 2.35, 3.12 and 3.86 in the three rounds of the 2005 postseason and had the honor of starting Game 1 of the 2005 World Series. After the 2006 break, however, Contreras hit the wall in a hurry by posting a 5.40 ERA for the rest of the season, then bottoming out in 2007 with league worsts for errors for pitchers (6), fielding percentage (.818) and finishing second in losses (17), hit batsmen (15) and fifth in hits allowed (232), although he somehow also led AL in shutouts (2).

Danny Tartabull (RF/DH, 1996): Once a star for the Royals and Yankees, Tartabull put together a so-so line in his one season with the Sox, not making the leaderboards in any category and bolting for Philadelphia prior to the 1997 season. Tartabull played just three games with the Phillies before calling it quits.

Orlando Hernandez (RHP, 2005): It’s not uncommon in sports for players to come and go, and it’s not uncommon for some men to have their entire tenure with a team marked by a single moment. El Duque, as we so vividly and bittersweetly recall, was one of those men:
El Duque, game 3, 2005 ALDS