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He's Defect Free

It was a long journey from Cuba to the U.S., but Kendry Morales' performance in the minors has made the wait worth it for Angels

June 17, 2005|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

It was a magnificent shot, the trajectory of the ball seemingly beginning in Havana and ending in Anaheim.

Kendry Morales, the Cuban defector the Angels signed last winter, stood in the batter's box and admired the majesty of the moment, the ball easily clearing the right-field fence. It was his second home run since being assigned to Class-A Rancho Cucamonga by the Angels, and Morales was feeling good about himself.

In Cuba, he would have been lauded for his pause at the plate. In Cucamonga, he was seen as showboating.

"We had to pull Kendry aside and tell him, 'That's not the way we do things over here,' " Eddie Bane, the Angels' director of scouting, said with a laugh. "The next day, he got hit in the back with a message pitch. He's been fine ever since. He's a really good kid. You tell him once, and he gets it."

And the flight of that home run, from Cuba to Orange County? Morales has plans on his career mirroring that path.


The rapid ascent already has begun. Morales was promoted to double-A Arkansas this week after batting .344 with five homers and 17 RBIs in 22 games for the Quakes.

Morales, who turns 22 on Monday, is a switch-hitter who hit for power and average and also pitched and played first base, third base and outfield while starring in his native Cuba.

On his club team, Havana's Industriales, Morales set rookie records for home runs (21), runs batted in (82), hits (114), extra-base hits (46) and runs (60).

At 19, he became the first teenager to play for the Cuban national team since Omar Linares.

In 2003, after batting .391 with nine homers and 42 RBIs for Industriales, he batted cleanup for the Cubans in the World Cup and his grand slam helped Cuba defeat Taiwan, 6-3, in the final. He earned about $6 a month, though his basic necessities were taken care of in the communist nation.

Then, just as suddenly as his star rose above the island nation, it came crashing down in a fiery ball.

In Panama for a pre-Olympic tournament in late 2003, word began to circulate that Cuba's top player was contemplating defecting.

"That's when the problems started," Morales said. "That's when they lost confidence in me. As soon as the rumors started, so did their lack of confidence. I lost the trust of the country."

So, in the middle of the tournament, Cuban officials kicked him off the team, sent him home and not only suspended him from the national team but also from Industriales.

They would make an example of him. But there was one thing wrong with that logic, Morales said -- he had not even entertained the idea of defecting. Not yet, anyway.

"That's when I decided to leave," Morales said.

The details of his June 6, 2004 flight are sketchy now, or maybe Morales has conveniently forgotten them to protect those who helped him escape. But he said it was on his ninth attempt to flee when he was successful.

Tales of his walking for miles with a large group of people under the cover of darkness -- and his carrying an exhausted woman the last hour -- to catch a waiting boat have been written, as have stories of tipsy rafts in shark-infested waters.

Morales only offers a weary smile, saying the trip, aboard "una lancha rapida," a speedboat, took about four hours and 18 people were on the cutter.

He left behind the woman he refers to as his wife -- Yarleis -- and his mother, though her name, Noevia, will always be with him, tattooed on his chest.

"They didn't know anything because I didn't want them to worry," he said. Both have since defected and moved to Miami.

Morales knew all about the United States' so-called "wet foot-dry foot" policy, where Cuban immigrants caught at sea are usually returned to Cuba and those who reach U.S. soil are generally allowed to stay.

He also knew that a Cuban who established residency in a third country would not be subject to the Major League Baseball draft, thus increasing his potential earnings considerably as a free agent.

So after spending time in Orlando, Fla., Morales slipped away to the Dominican Republic with his advisor, a Canadian accountant named John DiManno.

Morales worked out for many clubs, including the Yankees, Seattle, Florida and the Angels. But the Angels made him feel different, Morales said, by spending what Bane called "quality time" with him.

"We stayed at the same hotel as him, played pool with him, went to the beach with him, just interacted with him," Bane said.

Morales signed a six-year contract with a $3-million bonus on Dec. 1 and the Angels hoped to have him in Tempe, Ariz., for spring training. But reams of paperwork slowed his entry to the U.S.

A frustrated Morales played in the Dominican winter league with Estrellas Orientes of San Pedro de Macoris. He suffered an injury to his left elbow after a collision with another player but said, "It's not an issue anymore."

Angel first base coach Alfredo Griffin, a native of San Pedro, made a point to watch Morales.

"In Cuba, he was above their league," Griffin said. "When I saw him, I just told the Angels, 'This guy can hit.' "

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