He's Defect Free

Times Staff Writer

It was a magnificent shot, the trajectory of the ball seemingly beginning in Havana and ending in Anaheim.

Kendry Morales, the Cuban defector the Angels signed last winter, stood in the batter's box and admired the majesty of the moment, the ball easily clearing the right-field fence. It was his second home run since being assigned to Class-A Rancho Cucamonga by the Angels, and Morales was feeling good about himself.

In Cuba, he would have been lauded for his pause at the plate. In Cucamonga, he was seen as showboating.

"We had to pull Kendry aside and tell him, 'That's not the way we do things over here,' " Eddie Bane, the Angels' director of scouting, said with a laugh. "The next day, he got hit in the back with a message pitch. He's been fine ever since. He's a really good kid. You tell him once, and he gets it."

And the flight of that home run, from Cuba to Orange County? Morales has plans on his career mirroring that path.

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The rapid ascent already has begun. Morales was promoted to double-A Arkansas this week after batting .344 with five homers and 17 RBIs in 22 games for the Quakes.

Morales, who turns 22 on Monday, is a switch-hitter who hit for power and average and also pitched and played first base, third base and outfield while starring in his native Cuba.

On his club team, Havana's Industriales, Morales set rookie records for home runs (21), runs batted in (82), hits (114), extra-base hits (46) and runs (60).

At 19, he became the first teenager to play for the Cuban national team since Omar Linares.

In 2003, after batting .391 with nine homers and 42 RBIs for Industriales, he batted cleanup for the Cubans in the World Cup and his grand slam helped Cuba defeat Taiwan, 6-3, in the final. He earned about $6 a month, though his basic necessities were taken care of in the communist nation.

Then, just as suddenly as his star rose above the island nation, it came crashing down in a fiery ball.

In Panama for a pre-Olympic tournament in late 2003, word began to circulate that Cuba's top player was contemplating defecting.

"That's when the problems started," Morales said. "That's when they lost confidence in me. As soon as the rumors started, so did their lack of confidence. I lost the trust of the country."

So, in the middle of the tournament, Cuban officials kicked him off the team, sent him home and not only suspended him from the national team but also from Industriales.

They would make an example of him. But there was one thing wrong with that logic, Morales said -- he had not even entertained the idea of defecting. Not yet, anyway.

"That's when I decided to leave," Morales said.

The details of his June 6, 2004 flight are sketchy now, or maybe Morales has conveniently forgotten them to protect those who helped him escape. But he said it was on his ninth attempt to flee when he was successful.

Tales of his walking for miles with a large group of people under the cover of darkness -- and his carrying an exhausted woman the last hour -- to catch a waiting boat have been written, as have stories of tipsy rafts in shark-infested waters.

Morales only offers a weary smile, saying the trip, aboard "una lancha rapida," a speedboat, took about four hours and 18 people were on the cutter.

He left behind the woman he refers to as his wife -- Yarleis -- and his mother, though her name, Noevia, will always be with him, tattooed on his chest.

"They didn't know anything because I didn't want them to worry," he said. Both have since defected and moved to Miami.

Morales knew all about the United States' so-called "wet foot-dry foot" policy, where Cuban immigrants caught at sea are usually returned to Cuba and those who reach U.S. soil are generally allowed to stay.

He also knew that a Cuban who established residency in a third country would not be subject to the Major League Baseball draft, thus increasing his potential earnings considerably as a free agent.

So after spending time in Orlando, Fla., Morales slipped away to the Dominican Republic with his advisor, a Canadian accountant named John DiManno.

Morales worked out for many clubs, including the Yankees, Seattle, Florida and the Angels. But the Angels made him feel different, Morales said, by spending what Bane called "quality time" with him.

"We stayed at the same hotel as him, played pool with him, went to the beach with him, just interacted with him," Bane said.

Morales signed a six-year contract with a $3-million bonus on Dec. 1 and the Angels hoped to have him in Tempe, Ariz., for spring training. But reams of paperwork slowed his entry to the U.S.

A frustrated Morales played in the Dominican winter league with Estrellas Orientes of San Pedro de Macoris. He suffered an injury to his left elbow after a collision with another player but said, "It's not an issue anymore."

Angel first base coach Alfredo Griffin, a native of San Pedro, made a point to watch Morales.

"In Cuba, he was above their league," Griffin said. "When I saw him, I just told the Angels, 'This guy can hit.' "

The paperwork mess cleared up, Morales finally landed in the U.S. in mid-May and the Angels assigned him to Rancho Cucamonga. He homered on his first swing May 21.

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The yin in Morales is still fighting with the yang.

Much of Castro's Cuba is in him, from the heavy Havana accent that drips from his mouth when he speaks his rapid-fire Spanish to his suddenly deferential manner when asked who his favorite major league team was while growing up. It was all about Castro and country, and picking one over the other is akin to betrayal.

"Oh no, over there, you couldn't say anything," he said. "Over there, you weren't really allowed to pick a favorite team."

Then the exile in him pops out, such as when he stands at home plate admiring a home run, or when he tells Bane and Co. of another prospect in Cuba before stopping.

"Never mind, I don't think you want him," Morales said. "He's a communist."

The Angels hope Morales wears the title of major leaguer, and soon. There were only six Cubans on opening-day major league rosters this year -- Tampa Bay's Danys Baez, the White Sox's Jose Contreras (who has left messages of support for Morales) and Orlando Hernandez, Washington's Livan Hernandez, Kansas City's Eli Marrero and Baltimore's Rafael Palmeiro.

When Morales signed with the Angels, he was put on the 40-man roster. But that does not guarantee a call-up when rosters are expanded in September, even with the Angels' lack of production from the designated hitter spot.

"He's getting acclimated to playing everyday baseball in the United States," Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said. "As he gets more and more confidence ... his talent's evident.

"There has to be a role ... he has to earn his way here. He's going to answer that question."

He answered it fairly quickly in Rancho Cucamonga, posting a .544 slugging percentage and scoring 18 runs. He struck out 11 times and had six walks in 22 games.

"In the end, he'll be a 3-4-5 hitter," Bane said.

At 6 feet 1, 220 pounds, Morales reminds some of the San Francisco Giants' Edgardo Alfonzo.

"I'll take that," Bane said. "Being a switch-hitter, he's never going to face that curveball running away. Deep down, he knows how good he is."

Bouts of loneliness in Rancho Cucamonga were combated with the daily grind of professional baseball and a visit from Yarleis. Still, there are cultural differences he faces on a daily basis.

"It's not the same," Morales said. "I have to speak another language. The way people are here is different than in Cuba. Even the beans are different."

Culinary delights apart, the game, and the adulation fans pour on their baseball-playing heroes, is similar.

"Oh yeah," he said. "I'm preparing for that in Anaheim."

The confident exile in Morales is back, admiring his moment.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Cuban influence

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An overview of Cuban baseball players in the United States:

THE EARLY IMPORTS

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Before baseball's integration in 1947, only light-skinned players from the island could make the jump to the major leagues. Some of the early stars:

* Dolf Luque -- Winner of 194 games in 20 seasons, the right-hander was a member of the Cincinnati rotation for more than a decade, with career bests of 27 victories and a 1.93 earned-run average in 1923.

* Martin Dihigo -- Perhaps the greatest Cuban player of all-time, segregation kept him out of the major leagues. A star in the Negro Leagues and in Cuba, "El Maestro" could play all nine positions and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977.

* Minnie Minoso -- Known as "The Cuban Comet," he was the star outfielder of the "Go-Go" Chicago White Sox of the 1950s, batting over .300 eight times.

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FLEEING THE REVOLUTION

With the takeover by Fidel Castro's forces in Cuba in 1959, Havana's relations with Washington soured, leading to a generation of players -- and the parents of future players -- that left the island:

* Tony Perez -- At 17, he signed with Cincinnati, his only signing bonus a $2.50 payment for an exit visa. He played 23 seasons in the majors, driving in 1,652 runs and getting elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000.

* Luis Tiant -- The son of a Cuban and Negro League legend, he won 229 games in 19 seasons. After his contract was purchased by Cleveland in 1961, he went 14 years without seeing his family, until a special visa allowed his parents to see him pitch for Boston in the 1975 World Series.

* Rafael Palmeiro -- His family fled Cuba in 1971 when he was 5. He is playing in his 20th major league season and has hit 559 home runs.

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PRODUCTS OF THE SYSTEM

Like Angel prospect Kendry Morales, many Cuban League stars have undergone the dangerous process of defecting so they can play in the major leagues. Among the best:

* Livan Hernandez -- Only two years after defecting from the Cuban national team while on a tour of Mexico in 1995, he was the NLCS and World Series MVP in leading Florida to the championship. Now starring for Washington, he is one of baseball's most durable pitchers, averaging 234 innings the last five seasons.

* Orlando Hernandez -- The star pitcher of the Cuban national team, he compiled a 129-47 record in Cuba before being banned in 1996 for allegedly planning to defect. Signed by the New York Yankees in 1998, after escaping Cuba with seven others on a rickety sailboat, he is 9-3 in postseason play. He's now pitching for the White Sox.

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