KEN PETERS | Associated Press
Kendry Morales, lounging in the Rancho Cucamonga dugout before a Quakes’ game earlier this month, didn’t have to look far to realize he wasn’t in his homeland.
Gazing beyond the manicured infield and lush grass to the outfield, Morales said, “In Cuba, there are no ads on the fences. They’re all just green.”
Welcome to the United States.
Morales, a switch-hitting slugger who turns 22 on Monday, made around $6 a month playing baseball in Cuba, although he said housing and everything else he really needed had been provided since he was a top player.
He got a $3 million signing bonus after finalizing a six-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels.
“Everything is very different here,” Morales, shaking his head and smiling, said through a translator.
Considered one of the most talented hitters ever in his country, Morales arrived in Miami last year on a boat with 18 other refugees, finally able to flee Cuba after a number of failed attempts.
“He got caught twice, got thrown in jail for trying to defect. He’s done a lot of stuff in 21 years,” said Angels scout Eddie Bane, who has been tracking Morales’ progress since the Cuban was 16.
Morales’ first impression when he arrived in Miami?
“Freedom,” he said. “I was really happy because I was going to have a chance to play baseball. It was already a year that I hadn’t been playing. I wanted to play baseball and this was the only place I could.”
The cleanup hitter for his country’s national team, Morales was sent home from Panama while Cuba was playing an Olympic qualifying game in 2003. He then was barred from both the national team and his league team in Cuba, because, he said, authorities thought he was going to defect.
Defection then was his only choice if he was going to continue to play.
Morales left Florida and went to the Dominican Republic, where he was granted residency, applied for citizenship and a passport. That allowed him to avoid a special U.S. baseball draft for Cuban players that would have prevented him from negotiating contract terms. A Cuban player who acquires residency in a third country is eligible for free-agent status.
Although Morales was included on the Angels’ major league roster this spring, the paperwork for him to come to the United States took a long time to complete, and he arrived in the U.S. last month.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder finally made a spectacular pro debut May 21 at Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, hitting a home run in his first at-bat.
Obviously on a fast track the Angels hope will carry him to the majors, Morales was promoted to Double-A Arkansas after hitting .344 with five homers and 17 RBIs in 22 games for Rancho Cucamonga. He’s off to a slower start with Arkansas, with just two hits in 15 at-bats through Thursday’s game.
While Morales was at Rancho Cucamonga, he impressed Quakes manager Tyrone Boykin.
“You could see that he’s getting comfortable, loosening up,” Boykin said. “He’s getting used to being in this country, teammates, the atmosphere.
“He hadn’t really played for almost a year, so this is spring training for him. He wants to learn. He’s played right field, first and third for us and he can handle himself at all of them.”
Then there’s Morales’ talent at the plate.
“He’s got great bat speed, can square up, you can just see the ball come off his bat a little bit differently,” Boykin said. “He’s a hitter. He could be in Anaheim next month. It all depends on how fast he progresses.”
Chicago White Sox pitcher Jose Contreras, who played with Morales on Cuba’s junior national team, also believes Morales can play in the majors. He cited Morales’ rookie season with Havana’s Industriales.
“He broke six records as a rookie in Cuba. In my opinion, I think the adjustment won’t be hard at all and he might make it to the big leagues faster than people think he might,” Contreras said through a translator.
Morales hit .324 with 21 homers and 82 RBIs in 90 games and was named the Cuban League’s rookie of the year in 2002. With the national team in 2003, he hit a grand slam that helped Cuba beat Taiwan for the World Cup championship.
He’s well-known in Cuba, but mostly anonymous in the U.S.
“A few people know me,” he said. “But then, I haven’t had a chance to play in the big leagues yet.”