Cuban baseball player Andy Morales emerged from the immigrant detention facility outside Florida's Everglades on July 20 a free man. Two months ago he escaped from Cuba but was sent back; now he is likely to join New York Yankees pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and other escapees in the major leagues.
The appearance of Mr. Morales restarted the buzz that began a year ago when he first caught the eye of baseball enthusiasts. On May 3, 1999, the Cuban third baseman hit a three-run home run in the top of the ninth inning, capping a 12-6 exhibition-game victory for the Cuban national team over the Baltimore Orioles. Mr. Morales soaked up the bright lights in Camden Yards that night, rounding the bases with arms outstretched like a free bird.
The young ballplayer has been a caged animal since. After the game, he was spotted talking to an American sports agent. Cuba's apparatchiks reacted swiftly. Suspecting that their 24-year-old hero might be thinking about defecting, they benched him. While teammates geared up for last year's Pan Am games and next month's Olympics, Cuban officials removed Mr. Morales from the national team and held him out of international competitions.
Mr. Morales is not saying whether he was planning to defect at Camden Yards. But the prospect had to look more appealing upon his return to Cuba and premature oblivion. Allowed to rejoin his local team, he soon quit because he was constantly followed by state security agents. On June 3, 2000, the U.S. Coast Guard found Mr. Morales and 30 other would-be defectors aboard a Cuban boat that ran out of fuel near Key West, Fla. They had spent five days at sea. Coast Guard officials returned Mr. Morales to Cuba. Under a special immigration agreement with Cuba, the United States returns Cubans found at sea but grants temporary legal status to those who make it to U.S. soil. One day and one year after their arrival, they may apply for permanent residency.
Certain to qualify for political asylum in this country, Mr. Morales in June was denied the opportunity to apply and sent home. Back in Cuba, he became a gusano, or worm, the Castro term for those who fall out of favor. The Cuban government announced that the ballplayer was past his prime and would officially retire from baseball. Cuba National Sports Institute head Humberto Rodriquez said Mr. Morales "expressed his repentance" and would work for the institute, the state-run sports watchdog.
Adelso Morales, the ballplayer's father, stood by his son. He said he supported Andy's failed attempt to reach the United States and noted that his son would probably be consigned to street sweeping by the Castro regime. "God gives us our destiny and we must accept it. Others have drowned in the ocean. We are grateful Andy is alive," he said.
Mr. Morales also appeared outwardly resigned to the hard life. When a Baltimore Sun reporter caught up with him in Cuba weeks ago, he said, "I'm doing nothing now. I have to wait and see what happens.... I don't have any plans."
Inside, the dream to reach the big leagues never died. On July 20, Mr. Morales turned up in U.S. Border Patrol custody-this time after a successful landing on U.S. soil. It was not an easy journey. After an overnight voyage from Cuba, Mr. Morales and eight others were dropped off on an uninhabited island at the bottom of the Florida Keys, apparently by smugglers. They had only a gallon of water and virtually no food. The group went undiscovered for nearly two days. U.S. officials detained them for two more days for questioning and paperwork and suggested the smugglers might be prosecuted. Having made it to U.S. shores, however, Mr. Morales and the others were home free.
"I would like to play in the Major Leagues, I want to play for the best possible team, and of course my dream would be to one day be able to play in a team that will go on to play in the World Series," the ballplayer told reporters the following day at one of Miami's Little Havana restaurants, where he consumed two lunches to make up for the journey's deprivation and to celebrate his newfound freedom.
"Most of the world misunderstands why Cubans leave the island. It is not a search for material goods, it is a search for hope," Cuban defector Orestes Lorenzo told WORLD. "Hoping for a better life does not mean having a car and sleeping in air conditioning. It means having the freedom to choose your friends and to say what you think."
Mr. Lorenzo made his own escape to the United States in 1991. A Cuban Air Force fighter pilot, he flew a Russian-made MiG 23 to a Florida naval air station in a daring defection maneuver. A little over a year later, in perhaps the boldest act of defiance of the Castro era, he flew back into Cuba, landed on a highway, picked up his waiting family, and returned to the United States.
Family separation, a common feature of Cuban-American life highlighted in the Elián Gonzalez affair, has changed along with the easing of trade restrictions, according to Mr. Lorenzo. That should help ballplayer Morales, who, like Mr. Lorenzo, left behind a wife and two sons in Cuba. Now, with the opening of telecommunications to the island and increased media access, it may be harder for Mr. Castro to abuse family members when a defector shows up in the American limelight.
While he waits to be reunited with his family, Mr. Morales has plenty of career challenges in his new home. At least five Major League teams are courting the star third baseman. League rules demand that he go through an amateur draft. Or, if he moved to a third country, he would be able to return to the United States as a free agent and have more negotiating power. For now one thing is settled, and even he and Mr. Castro agree on it: Andy Morales won't be wearing the Cuban national team uniform ever again.