Top Cuban Talent Defects To U.S.

By Kevin Baxter
June 8, 2004


Kendry Morales, the best young position player Cuba has produced in a generation, has defected and is in Miami, his stepfather said Wednesday.

Henry Nuñez told the Associated Press in Havana that Morales had called from South Florida to say that he was safe. Morales, former pitching coach Orlando Chinea and 16 others fled Cuba by boat about 8 p.m. Saturday, arriving in Key West shortly after midnight Monday morning.

Morales, a 21-year-old switch-hitter who can play both corner outfield and both corner infield spots, was the first Cuban teenager to star for the national team since Omar Linares in the 1970s.

A line-drive hitter with power, Morales set seven rookie records in Cuban League play, banging out 114 hits, 21 homers and driving in 82 runs in his first year. In last year’s Serie Nacional, Morales led the league with 44 hits and 12 doubles while batting .361 with two homers and 17 RBI before being suspended in December when Cuban authorities suspected he was planning to defect.

Morales’ desire to play professionally also forced Cuba to leave him off the Pan American Games team last summer, then to send him home from a pre-Olympic tournament in Panama in October.

Morales told a visiting Canadian journalist last month that he had stayed in the shape by playing baseball in a municipal league this spring.

It is unclear whether Morales, who has drawn the attention of several big-league scouts, will seek political asylum in the United States, which would limit his bargaining power in attempting to sign a professional contract, or attempt to establish residency in a third country to become a free agent.

Chinea, who worked with big-league pitchers Livan Hernandez and Rolando Arrojo before both defected in the 1990s, told Internet reporter Ivette Leyva that the group included nine men, seven women and two children left from Matanzas. One member of the group, who was suffering from dehydration, was treated by a doctor and the group was then processed by immigration authorities Monday.

Morales was released to a family friend Monday night while Chinea was reunited with his wife and son, who have lived in Hialeah since 2000. Chinea was banned from Cuban baseball after he fled the island with three players in 1998 only to be repatriated by Bahamian officials after the group was rescued at sea.

Kevin Baxter covers international baseball for the Miami Herald.