I was on vacation last week — in Miami of all places — when Jose Contreras pulled up lame covering first with a torn Achilles tendon. It’s a career-threatening injury, especially given the Cuban-born pitcher’s probable age, so his career — his White Sox career, anyway — flashed before my eyes. I recalled particularly the game in 2005 when he outdueled Randy Johnson — then pitching for the New York Yankees — and began the Sox’ determined march toward their championship. Up to that point of the season the Sox had merely been a hot first-place team, and Contreras had been “erratic,” as I described in a column of the time. That day, however, was beastly hot, and the Cuban was in his element. My Sox pal Kate splurged on scalped tickets, and we watched from sunny seats in left field (it was a brief pleasure when the shade from the foul pole crossed our faces) just beyond the Sox’ bullpen.
We went down and watched him warm up, with Contreras using a big ball — almost the size of a 12-inch softball — to warm his arm and spread his fingers for the split-finger fastball he was mastering. Masterful he was that day, and the Sox won, and it began a streak of 17 straight wins for Contreras extending into the next season — still a Sox record. He won the first game of the playoff series with the Boston Red Sox that fall, and the first game of the Sox’ four-game sweep of the Houston Astros in the World Series. That’s when we were coming up with the nickname of “Churchy” for him — after a Churchill, a big Cuban cigar named after British prime minister Winston Churchill (whom I believe preferred Romeo y Julietas), also reminiscent of Churchy LaFemme, the turtle character (who was likewise bare-headed beneath his admiral’s hat) from the classic Walt Kelly comic strip Pogo.
The great thing about Churchy was that he was human, not a machine (in marked contrast with, say, Michael Phelps). After struggling in New York upon signing with the Yankees after his defection from Cuba, he thrived with the Sox when he was reunited with his family. He struggled last season while going through a divorce, but righted himself, for the most part, this season. He was quiet, yet skittish, emotional, yet surprisingly steely when on, and when he was on — as he was in that stretch from Aug. 21, 2005, until the Fourth of July the following year, that’s right, July 4, 2006 — he was a sight to behold. So come back, Churchy; we’re rooting for you. But if not, hey, you’ve given us quite enough.