Morales ready for American life and the majors

After fleeing Cuba, he's eager to resume baseball

July 23, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The arrow on the road sign pointed to the right: "Miami," it promised. Cuban baseball player Andy Morales was finally on the last leg of his boomeranging journey between Cuba and the United Sates.

From a federal detention center on the edge of the Everglades, where he was taken after defecting to the United States last week on his second attempt in 1 1/2 months, it's a straight shot east - 16 miles, three McDonald's and one Starbucks - to the heart of Miami's Little Havana.

There, in what has become the Ellis Island for thousands of Cuban exiles who have fled their homeland over the years, Morales kissed two fingers, touched them to the ground and then pointed skyward.

"I feel very good about being here," Morales said Friday, a day after his embrace of America. "Thanks to God and everyone I was successful this time."

Morales' relief was well-earned. Consider his past 14 months: He considered defecting while in Baltimore for a May 3, 1999, exhibition game, changed his mind, went back to Cuba, decided to defect after all, got stopped at sea by the Coast Guard and sent home, boarded another boat and, last week, made it to U.S. shores.

Today, he is a long way from his old life and getting further by the minute.

Even as he was being driven from the detention center to Little Havana on Thursday, for the medical tests and paperwork required before federal officials would release him from custody, it was already clear how very different this new life would be.

Morales' sports agent started juggling calls from several major league teams. A publicist began spinning and managing his newfound celebrity. The media were chasing him for his first comments, and memorabilia-seekers were ready with baseballs and T-shirts for his autograph.

Just days before, 28-year-old Morales was living quietly in his small hometown of San Nicolas de Bari, about 40 desolate miles from the cosmopolitan bustle of Havana, on the other end of a highway where men sell strings of onions and garlic or bags of mangoes on the side of the road.

When he was interviewed there by The Sun several weeks ago, Morales was downcast and reluctant to speak, worried that anything he said would get him into trouble.

"I'm doing nothing now. I have to wait and see what happens," he said tersely. "I don't have any plans."

Sweet memories

For the idled player, taken off Cuba's national team and no longer motivated to play at a lower level, the memories of the game against the Orioles last year seemed particularly sweet.

Morales asked after Albert Belle, Charles Johnson and Harold Baines, three players he met during last year's two-game series between Cuba and the Orioles, the first played in Havana in March, the second in Baltimore in May.

He mentioned that he heard that Cal Ripken reached the 3,000-hit milestone this year.

When Morales slugged his ninth-inning home run at Camden Yards, capping the Cubans' 12-6 victory, he ran around the bases like a kid - arms outstretched like an airplane, zooming through his own private clouds.

While some Orioles were miffed, thinking Morales was showing them up, Brady Anderson seemed to understand what was behind the childlike display.

"Maybe that's the biggest home run he'll ever hit in his life," Anderson said. "Let him take his home run trot, big deal."

And indeed, after Morales returned to Cuba from those games, his career went into a tailspin.

While other players were gearing up for the 1999 Pan Am games and the 2000 Olympics, he was taken off the national team and told that he would not be going to any international competitions.

State officials said it was because of his mediocre performance during the Cuban regular season. His supporters, however, said he was being punished for being seen speaking to a sports agent at Camden Yards and thus suspected of planning to defect.

In fact he did want to leave Cuba, after a year in which he no longer played on the national team.

Intercepted

Last month, Morales boarded a boat with 30 other Cubans trying to flee their homeland, but they were intercepted at sea and sent back. Television footage of him being returned to Cuba showed his utter dejection, shoulders slumped and his eyes cast downward.

Morales remained determined, though, saying the next time he would go through legal channels. He joked about trying to marry an American citizen as his only way to get past Cuba's restrictions on migrating to the United States.

Morales, though, ended up boarding another boat, this time with eight others.

The group left Cuba shortly after midnight a week ago, having paid smugglers to ferry them to the United States, federal Border Patrol officials said.

Morales denies having paid smugglers for the trip, but the Border Patrol is continuing to investigate. If charges are ever filed, they would be against the alleged smugglers, not the passengers.

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