MIAMI - Andy Morales is a third baseman looking for a job. The Baltimore Orioles are a team with an ailing, aging third baseman. Morales excited crowds at Camden Yards last year when he first drew the national spotlight. The O's are in serious need of some pizazz after several dreary seasons.
But as other major league teams are said to be lining up to check out this latest talent to defect from Cuba, the Orioles may be out of the running.
The team's apparent desire not to hire defectors for fear of insulting Cuban President Fidel Castro - an issue that the U.S. Justice Department recently decided to investigate - has Morales looking elsewhere for employment.
"They don't want to sign a Cuban defector; we don't want to sign with them," Gus Dominguez, Morales' agent, said yesterday.
"That's a very individual decision they made; that's their problem," Morales said.
The Orioles' alleged embargo on Cuban players - coming as Congress is moving toward easing the U.S. embargo on Cuba - stems from a statement that a team official made this spring.
"We - Mr. Angelos in particular - feel that it best not to do anything that could be interpreted as being disrespectful or ... encouraging players to defect," Syd Thrift, the O's vice president for baseball operations told the Washington Times in May
While Orioles officials have backed off from the statement, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a longtime Castro antagonist, succeeded in getting the Justice Department to investigate the team for possible discrimination in hiring practices.
Thrift said yesterday: "We would evaluate him pretty much like any other player. What are his chances of becoming a productive major league player? Beyond that, it's very difficult to say anything. The issue goes beyond me. There are rules involved that would have to be clarified."
Morales, the first Cuban ballplayer to defect since Thrift's statement, starred in the May 3, 1999, game at Camden Yards. The game matched a Cuban all-star team against the Orioles and marked the first time since Castro took power in 1959 that the country's players were allowed to play American professionals.
Morales slugged a three-run homer in the ninth inning, capping the Cubans' 12-6 victory over the Orioles, and the image of him gleefully running the bases like a kid pretending to be an airplane captured the joy with which he and his teammates play the game.
Morales defected, he said yesterday, "to play for the best possible team ... that will some day go on to the World Series."
Which team he'll sign with remains unknown. Dominguez said he has asked baseball officials to hold a lottery for the teams interested in Morales - as was arranged for Rene Arocha, the first Cuban player to defect, in 1991 - but he believes they won't agree.
Morales would instead enter the amateur draft that will be held in June and negotiate a contract with the team that selects him.
Dominguez said he will suggest that Morales consider another option, to move to another country, which would allow him to enter baseball as a free agent. That would mean he could negotiate with any team, thus raising his market value.
Morales is spending his first days in America relaxing and visiting friends from Cuba who had moved here previously and fielding calls from the "team" he has already joined - some of the 30 or so Cuban ballplayers who defected here before him.