By Kevin Baxter
October 30, 2003
MIAMI–Cuban baseball stars Maels Rodriguez and Yobal Dueñas confirmed in a radio interview Thursday that they have defected with the goal of playing professional baseball in the United States.
The pair, reported missing by Cuban authorities last Saturday, surfaced on Spanish-language radio station WQBA-AM (1140) in Miami. The players, along with Miami-based agent Henry Vilar, were interviewed by phone from an undisclosed location and are believed to be in El Salvador.
Rodriguez, a 24-year-old righthander, would be the best big league prospect to defect from Cuba were it not for recent rumors of back and arm injuries. Rodriguez, whose fastball regularly reached 100 mph in the past, set the single-season strikeout record in Cuba, fanning 263 batters in 178 innings three years ago. In the 2001-02 season, he struck out 219 in 148-1/3 innings, going 14-3, 2.13 ERA.
But in this spring’s Cuban playoffs, Rodriguez pitched in 10 of 14 games for his Sancti Spíritus team and pitched complete games in two exhibitions. Cuban officials then left him off the Pan American Games and Olympic qualifying rosters, blaming arm and back injuries for the sudden loss of 15 mph off his fastball.
“I’ll demonstrate [I’m healthy],” Rodriguez said. “I’m going to demonstrate that I can still throw 100. These are things that they invent to cut a little off the careers of some athletes.”
Rodriguez, listed at 5-foot-11, 176 pounds during the 2000 Olympics, has had a strong international career as well, striking out 22 in 13 scoreless innings during the Olympics. One pro scout in Sydney rated Rodriguez’ fastball an 8 on the scouting 2-to-8 scale, “because you can’t go higher.
“It’s got velocity, it explodes, he’s got command of it. That’s as good as it gets.”
Even if the injury reports prove true, Rodriguez is young enough that he could return to have a long career. The only comparable previous Cuban defectors in terms of age have been Livan Hernandez and Danys Baez, and Baez had much less experience when he defected compared to Rodriguez.
“I want to play the best baseball and that’s in the United States,” Rodriguez said. ‘‘It’s a difficult step because you know how things are in Cuba. So when Yobal and I made this decision, it was the most important one in our careers.”
Dueñas, a 6-foot-2, 187-pound second baseman from Pinar del Rio, is a five-tool player and former Cuban stolen base champ who, at 31, is on the down side of a career that saw him debut in the Cuban national league at 17.
Dueñas confirmed Thursday he was suspended by Cuban officials for his relationship with the family of Yankees righthander and former teammate Jose Ariel Contreras.
“I never stopped seeing Ariel’s family,” he said. “He always treated me like a brother, and when he made the decision that I’m making now, I never turned my back on his family.”
Vilar said he arranged the players’ escape from Cuba by boat. If the players seek political asylum or residency outside the United States, they will likely be declared free agents by Major League Baseball and be able to sign with whichever team offers the most money. Vilar’s only other Cuban client, righthander Gary Galvez, defected to Miami a year ago but took up residency in the Dominican Republic in order to sign a free-agent deal with the Boston Red Sox. He reportedly ran into immigration problems after that, however, and remains in the Dominican, according to the Red Sox.
Vilar did not address his next step during Thursday’s interview and he did not return calls to his cell phone seeking comment.
Kevin Baxter covers baseball for the Miami Herald.