The Miami Herald
Oct. 31, 2003

Cuban stars Dueñas, Rodriguez defect


  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 with
  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.