Cuban who starred against O's defects

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIAMI - After striking out the first time he tried to defect, Cuban baseball player Andy Morales made it here Tuesday night. Now the player who starred in last year's historic exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards plans to pursue his dream of playing in the major leagues.

Morales remained in temporary federal custody last night after he and eight other Cubans were smuggled by boat into the United States on Tuesday, 1 1/2 months after the player first tried to defect but was intercepted at sea and returned home. He could be released as early as today to live with the relatives of his wife, Daiyana, who is trying to join him with their 7-month-old son.

Morales and the other passengers were being held for questioning about the apparent smuggling operation that brought them here, said Joe Mellia, a Border Patrol spokesman.

According to a 1995 agreement between the United States and Cuba, Cubans intercepted at sea are generally returned to their homeland, while those who make it to U.S. soil are allowed to remain in the United States.

Mellia said some of the passengers said they paid $5,000 to be taken to Florida. Smugglers usually charge $8,000 to $10,000, he said. The boat, which left Cuba at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, dropped off the passengers in Florida's Marquesas Keys, but has not been located.

Later Tuesday, Mellia said, the Coast Guard received an anonymous tip reporting possible Cuban migrants on an island in the Marquesas Keys. The Coast Guard took the stranded passengers - eight men and a 16-year-old girl - to Key West.

In Miami, the family that Morales considers his in-laws anxiously awaited his release from the Krome detention center, where refugees are taken when they arrive from Cuba. They seemed shocked that Morales fled a second time.

"He called us at 6 and said he was at Krome," said Amarilys Castillo, 14, Morales' sister-in-law. "I said, 'Are you sure you're at Krome?' We didn't get to talk for long, but he was really excited and really nervous." The Castillo family spent much of the day outside the detention center, but was not allowed to see Morales.

"We are so happy," said Azalia Castillo, whose daughter Daiyana remains in San Jose, Cuba. Castillo's son, Carlos, also was among the group that apparently paid smugglers to take them to Florida. The passengers, though, were dropped off in the Marquesas Keys, uninhabited islands about 25 miles west of Key West.

Morales' unabashed glee after hitting a ninth-inning home run against the Orioles in his national team's May 1999 victory at Camden Yards provided the event's signature image and came to symbolize the joy with which Cubans play the game.

Although he returned to Cuba a hero, Morales would later be removed from the Cuban national team. While Cuban officials said it was for his poor play in his country's league, Morales' supporters said it was because he had been seen speaking with a sports agent in Baltimore and thus was suspected of planning to defect.

Dejected that he was no longer on the national team, Morales tried to defect in June. When he was sent back to Cuba after that failed attempt, Morales found himself out of baseball - neither playing in his homeland, nor allowed to pursue a spot on a team in the United States.

Morales told The Sun two weeks ago that it was his decision to quit baseball in Cuba.

"I have lost my motivation," Morales said as he sat in his parents' home in San Nicolas de Bari, an isolated town about 40 miles southeast of Havana.

But Morales' supporters say they doubt he was speaking freely.

"All Cubans want to play for Cuba," said Milton H. Jamail, a University of Texas professor and author of the recent book "Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball."

Jamail and others believe Morales was being punished for his attempted defection. Other players have been similarly banned from the game for even being suspected of considering defection.

When last seen by the outside world, Morales was the picture of bliss, eyes skyward and arms outstretched in a big "V." And why not - he had just hit a home run, a satisfying exclamation point on Cuba's 12-6 victory over the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.

The next morning, May 4, 1999, Morales and his teammates returned to Cuba as heroes, welcomed at the airport by President Fidel Castro himself, who hugged them as they stepped off the plane, then led a huge rally in their honor.

Morales returned home a hero, but only temporarily.

Last month, he boarded a boat to Florida, an illegal voyage attempted by hundreds of Cubans every year. Just 90 miles away, the United States beckons irresistibly, especially to athletes like Morales who have had a glimpse of the privileged world of professional sports.

But the boat ferrying Morales and 30 other passengers ran out of gas 25 miles from the Dry Tortugas, the U.S.-owned string of coral reefs and islands west of the Florida Keys. The Coast Guard took the stranded passengers on board a cutter, and U.S. immigration agents interviewed them to determine whether any could show a "credible fear" of persecution if they were to be returned to Cuba. None did, immigration officials said, so all were sent home.

From his home in Cuba last month, Morales said he had lost his motivation to play for Cuba and that he only wanted to play in the United States.

Morales performed well against the Orioles, and Cuba's rabid fans can recite his statistics from each game. Yet, Morales is not a star in Cuba on the level of, say, Omar Linares, who in his prime was considered by some to be the best player in the world.

Still, to play on one of Cuba's regional teams, the top level of competition in that country, is a pretty good life. One news report put Morales' salary at about $24 a month, which sounds shockingly paltry but is actually at the high end of Cuban salaries and comparable to what a doctor might make. It doesn't buy much, however - Morales, like many Cubans, doesn't own a car or even a bicycle.

By contrast, consider what players make in the United States: The major-league minimum salary is $200,000, and the average salary almost $2 million.

The player whose pure joy at hitting a home run that night in Camden Yards a year ago was frozen in time by the signature photograph from that game now finds himself locked in a different moment - one in which he'll remain until the question is answered: Will he play again, and where?

Which leads Morales to ask about a bit of news he's picked up about the Baltimore Orioles - an alleged discriminatory hiring practice that is now being investigated by the Justice Department.

"Is it true," he said, "that they don't like to hire Cuban defectors?"

About 35 Cuban baseball players have defected in the past 10 years. They include New York Yankees pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez; his half-brother, San Francisco Giants pitcher Livan Hernandez; and New York Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez.

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