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Posted January 27, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Sports

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By Joe Connor | Special to MLB.com

Kendry Morales’ homer gave Cuba victory in the 2003 world championships in Havana. (Jose Goitia/AP)

Seeing others’ success, defection attempts continue.

Having recently marked the 45th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, MLB.com contributor Joe Connor visited this Caribbean baseball hotbed for more than three weeks and was granted unprecedented access to its players, academies, sports institutes and ballparks across the countrys 14 provinces. What he discovered was that another revolution is quietly sweeping Cuba.

In just the past two months, several of its top baseball players, including superstar Kendry Morales, have attempted to flee the last remaining socialist country in the Western Hemisphere. Today, MLB.com begins a special, five-part weeklong series, taking baseball fans inside “The Forbidden Isle” like no one has before.

When Cuban superstar outfielder-first baseman Kendry Morales and catcher Barbaro Canizares took to the diamond on Dec. 28 in Cienfuegos, only they knew this would be their last game on their native soil. Or so they thought.

Two days later—under the cover of darkness and some 36 hours before the island nation of Cuba would mark the 45th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution—Morales and Canizares were apprehended by national security police for attempting to flee the country in a boat targeted for the Bahamas.

According to multiple sources within Cuba, the planned exodus from Caibarien, a port town in Villa Clara province about 200 miles northeast of the capital city of Havana, had been tipped to police. The Commissioner of Cuba’s National League, Carlos Rodriguez, later confirmed the incident when asked to explain the absence of Morales and Canizares from Industriales, one of Havana’s two clubs in the country’s 16-team amateur league that plays a 90-game regular season schedule from December to April.

“The [other] players knew Kendry was leaving the country illegally; the players don’t want that,” Rodriguez said in an exclusive interview with MLB.com. “They betrayed the love of the Cuban people.”

Added a Major League scout who covers Latin America: “The word is an agent set this deal up, then started popping his mouth off and the kid got busted.”

The attempted defections by Morales and Canizares are just two of several made by Cuba’s top players in recent months and come against the backdrop of the Olympic Games fast approaching. Having won the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, the Caribbean’s largest island hopes to recapture their standing after losing to the United States in Sydney, Australia, in 2000.

The attempts to leave Cuba are hardly a rarity among baseball’s elite. The development of tourism and the introduction of the U.S. dollar—both in the 1990s following the collapse of the former Soviet Union—has helped lead to the exodus of more than 45 baseball players from Cuba’s shores since 1990.

Agents, who stand to earn a significant amount of money off a Cuban defector who flees to a country such as the Bahamas or El Salvador and declares free agency, frequently aid in those defections. The recent defections by Maels Rodriguez and Yobal Duenes came on the heels of defections in recent years by Jose Contreras, Danys Baez and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, among many others.

“Guys are seeing that their peers are having success at the Major League level and saying to themselves, ‘What’s going to happen to me when I’m done [playing]?’” said Rudy Santin, the Devil Rays’ director of Latin American operations, who left Cuba when he was nine on a visa after his father fled the country on a boat in 1960.

Santin cited former right-hander Lazaro Valle as an example of what typically happens to players once their careers are over. In the 1990s, Valle was considered one of Cuba’s premier pitchers. Now retired, the luxuries once afforded Valle as a player—a nice house, a car, money—are all gone.

“He would have demanded a tremendous Major League contract in the 1990s,” Santin said. “I talked to El Duque the other day and he said [Valle’s] really struggling down there.”

In late October 2003, Rodriguez, a star pitcher, and Duenas, a veteran second baseman—both projected to play in the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece—successfully defected to El Salvador. Later, two players on Villa Clara’s provincial team, second baseman Yunieski Betancourt and pitcher Zaidel Beltran, unsuccessfully tried to flee Cuba from Havana following their Opening Day contest against Industriales at Latin American Stadium, which marked the start of the 43rd Cuban National League season. Beltran was the winning pitcher in that day’s game.

Two months later, 34-year-old pitcher Jose Ibar of Havana’s provincial team—another expected Olympic participant who had pitched in the Sydney games—was apprehended for trying to flee Cuba, and remains incarcerated, according to multiple sources, because he tried to leave the country on a boat from Cuban shores.

Sources say the four other players have been released from police custody because their attempts to leave were the result of third parties outside the country delivering a vessel to Cuban shores.

Players caught trying to flee Cuba have traditionally been banned from baseball, effectively relegated to having to find work in a country in which the average salary is $10 (U.S.) a month.

Morales is a marquee player, however. He is a 21-year-old switch-hitter considered by many Major League scouts to be the most talented Cuban position player since Omar Linares, who chose to remain rather than accept opportunities to defect in the mid-1990s.

Now, Morales’ record-setting rookie year in Cuba’s National League and in international tournaments will be forever removed from the country’s record books.

Robert Rowley, Latin and Central American scout for the Padres, remembered seeing Morales “destroy the U.S. team all by himself” in July 2001 at an 18-and-under Junior Pan-American Games Qualifier that featured six Americans who would later be drafted in the first round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. Pitching that day, Morales hit two home runs and also outdueled Mets prospect Scott Kazmir by going the distance and allowing just four hits.

“I remember all of the Cubans were saying before the game, ‘How are we going to beat these guys?’ Well, Kendry tore everybody apart by himself,” Rowley said.

“He would have been a great hitter in the Major Leagues, probably bat third in the order. He can hit any kind of pitch, he’s so good,” Rowley said. “I say ‘would have been’ because I don’t think he has a chance in hell to get out of Cuba now. I think he’s finished.”

Added another Major League scout: “[Morales] is Stan Javier with less speed and more power. Is he Barry Bonds? No. But he’s a Major League player. This guy could play every day and hit 20 to 25 home runs. He can really throw and he can really hit.”

Rodriguez did not rule out Morales’ return to the national team but others within Cuba insisted such a scenario will never happen.

“If a player wants to get out of the country, he may go the legal way,” Rodriguez said. “They leave the team when they are in another country in order to defame our country. They are encouraged to leave the country through propaganda.”

In early November 2003, fewer than six weeks before Morales would make a life-changing decision in Caibarien, the Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Panama was ripe with rumors.

“Even before he came down here, the word was out that he was going to defect,” Rowley said. “Then all of the sudden, halfway through the tournament, they send him back to Cuba.”

Humberto Rodriguez, president of Cuba’s National Institute for Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER), said in Cuba’s state-run national newspaper, Granma International, that in Panama, “there were attempts to encourage our players to defect.”

INDER, which oversees all player movement including transportation, has heightened security to quell attempts by others to flee. For example, in August 2003, Rodriguez, Duenes, Morales, Canizares and reliever Pedro Lazo did not travel to the Pan-American Games in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. And despite being named Most Valuable Player of the 2002 World Cup, Canizares, 24, was not allowed to participate in the October 2003 event held in Cuba. Canizares is considered by Major League scouts to have a good arm but below-average hitting ability.

This month, Eduardo Paret, the projected starting shortstop on Cuba’s Olympic team and a member of Villa Clara’s provincial club, has been forbidden from practicing and playing in games, apparently for security reasons. Paret had been suspended a year following the 2000 Olympic Games.

While Cuba does its best to shield its players from the lures of distant shores, it’s a tide that appears to be impossible to completely stem. Morales, among others, will probably be tempted to try to defect again.

“These agents work behind the scenes setting this up,” said an American League scout who follows Cuban amateurs, “and I would imagine they will try again because he’s a very talented player with definite Major League ability.”

Joe Connor is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

  1. Follow up post #1 added on May 10, 2004 by Alfredo Obeso jr.

    Pueden enviarme la informacion de beisbo, que deseen. Soy hijo de cubano y he jugado beisbol en Espapa por 30 aos. Gracias.

  2. Follow up post #2 added on June 05, 2004 by Nestor

    Un saludo.

  3. Follow up post #3 added on October 17, 2004 by Mateo

      If you are interested I can can give you more information on cuban defectors. I’ve been to Cuba several times, but now I can no longer return.  I once worked with sports agent Joe Cubas
    (El Gordo)  I by myself helped a pitcher from the Industriales
    defect.  I also made contact with Jose Contreras prior to his defection, once in Cuba and again in Japan.  I’ve also made contacts with other players in Cuba as well as othere countries.
      During the pre-olympic qualifications in Panama I was able to secretly deliver cell phones to Kendry Morales and a young pitcher named Yadel Marti.  I strongley believe that the precence of my associates and myself was not the reason for Kendry Morales’ swift return to Cuba, as we were stealth.
    But I did notice othere agents in the area who were not very incognito, such as Gus Dominguez and a runner for Syracuse based agent Joe Keioski.
      I am currently working with an associate out of Florida
    and, this same person is responsible for the most recent defections of three Cubans who worked out for scouts in Torreon Mexico.
      The situation in Cuba is a nightmare, and because of that the Pitcher that I myself helped defect has never seen his daughter,  my god daughter who was born after he defected.
      The adventures I had are very interesting and insightful, and the pursuit of Cuban ball players have taken me not only to Cuba, but Panama, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and as far east as Japan…
      I would love very much to share my experiences of the so called forbiden Isle, and help add to your articles and investigations…  Please return a message, and we can talk,
      Thank you,  Mateo

  4. Follow up post #4 added on November 23, 2004 by name

    u suck it sucks bye u r dumb

  5. Follow up post #5 added on August 22, 2011 by jojo

    Cuban baseball players are in one helluva a dilemma and you gotta feel for these guys. Mateo I would love to chat with you about this topic so mail me.

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