Havana, Jan 5 (EFE) - Cuba’s baseball world was shaken up Monday with the announcement that four top players, including two who had starred on the national team, were kicked off their clubs, reportedly for trying to defect to the United States and its juicy pro contracts.
Sluggers Kendry Morales, Barbaro Canizares, Olympic pitcher Jose Ibar and a rookie from Santiago de Cuba have been removed from their respective teams for allegedly trying to flee the island secretly, a baseball official told EFE.
The quartet is the latest group to try to join a wave of defection that began with Rene Arocha’s leaving the Cuban national team during a stopover at Miami International Airport in 1991. More than 50 players have followed in his shoes.
The decision to sack the players was announced, with no explanation, by the National Baseball Commission.
Persistent rumors circulated around the island in recent days regarding the defections of the three kingpins of Cuban baseball and that of young Santiago hurler Jose Miguel Abat.
Morales and Canizares had played on the Industriales team, current champion of the Cuban league, while Ibar and Abat had played on the league’s Havana and Santiago entries, respectively.
Morales and Canizares “were suprised by authorities before dawn Monday in the central town of Caibarien as they were trying to leave the country illegally, presumably headed for the United States,” a baseball official told EFE.
“They were immediately taken to a police station in that city, where they were briefly detained,” added the official, who asked not to be named.
Another sports official told EFE that neither Kendry Morales nor Barbaro Canizares “is currently under arrest. Both are at their respective homes.”
No official statement has yet been made confirming or denying either of those two cases, nor that of Ibar, an Olympic team pitcher also caught trying to leave the island from the western province of Pinar del Rio, the official said.
The highest-profile case is that of third-baseman Kendry Morales, who was whisked out of an Olympic qualifying tournament in Panama last fall amid rumors of an intended defection.
Morales was not included in the 2003 team that successfully defended Cuba’s Pan American Games championship because of “indiscipline,” the official said.
The incidents come fast on the heels of successful defections by Olympians Maels Rodriguez, a pitcher, and Yobal Duenas, a second baseman.
The last big-name Cuban player to make it to the Major Leagues was 6-foot-4-inch Havana native Jose Contreras, who signed a $5.5 million contract with the New York Yankees toward the end of the 2003 season, posted a 7-2 record during the regular season and appeared in eight postseason games, notching an 0-2 record and a 5.73 ERA.
Cuba - unlike other Latin American nations, such as Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, where players are scouted and signed as teenagers - forbids players from leaving to play pro ball abroad. Defection has been the only base path to a big-league career since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.