Cuban stars Dueñas, Rodriguez defect
BY KEVIN BAXTER
Cuban baseball stars Maels Rodriguez and Yobal Dueñas
confirmed in a radio interview Thursday that they have defected with the
goal of playing
professional baseball in the United States.
The pair, reported missing by Cuban authorities Saturday, surfaced
on Miami Spanish-language radio station WQBA (1140). The players, along
Miami-based agent Henry Vilar, were interviewed by telephone from an undisclosed location, believed to be El Salvador.
Rodriguez, a 24-year-old right-handed pitcher, would easily be
the best major-league prospect to defect from Cuba if not for recent rumors
of an arm injury.
Rodriguez, whose fastball regularly tops 100 mph, set the single-season strikeout record in Cuba with 263 in 178 1/3 innings three years ago. In the
2001-02 season, he struck out 219 in 148 1/3 innings, going 14-3 with a 2.13 ERA.
But in this spring's Cuban playoffs, Rodriguez pitched in 10
of 14 games for the Sancti Spíritus team and threw complete games
in two exhibitions. Cuban
officials then left him off the Pan American Games and Olympic qualifying teams, blaming arm and back injuries for the loss of 15 mph off his fastball.
''I'll demonstrate [I'm healthy],'' Rodriguez said. ``I'm going
to demonstrate that I can still throw 100. These are things that they invent
to cut a little off
the careers of some athletes.''
Even if the injury reports prove true, Rodriguez could miss a
season or two to surgery and rehabitation and still be the third-youngest
Cuban national team
star to defect, behind major-leaguers Livan Hernandez and Danys Baez. And Rodriguez has more international experience than either at a comparable age.
''I want to play the best baseball, and that's in the United
States,'' Rodriguez said. ``It's a difficult step because you know how
things are in Cuba. So
when Yobal and I made this decision, it was the most important one in our careers.''
Dueñas, a 6-2, 187-pound second baseman from Pinar del
Rio, is a five-tool player and former Cuban stolen base champ who, at 31,
is on the down side of
a career that saw him debut in the Cuban national league at 17.
Dueñas confirmed he was suspended by Cuban officials for
his relationship with the family of recent defector and former teammate
Jose Ariel Contreras.
Contreras left the Cuban national team in October 2002; Rodriguez reportedly had plans to leave at that time as well but changed his mind at the last
''I never stopped seeing Ariel's family,'' said Dueñas,
who precipitated a bench-clearing incident in the 2000 Olympics when he
slid spikes-high into USA
catcher Pat Borders. ``He always treated me like a brother, and when he made the decision that I'm making now, I never turned my back on his family.''
Vilar said he arranged the players' escape by boat. If the players
seek political asylum or residency outside the United States, they likely
will be declared
free agents by Major League Baseball and be able to sign with any team.
Vilar did not address his next step during the interview, and he did not return calls to his cellphone seeking comment.