Cuban ballplayer freed to pursue career in U.S.
BY ANDRES VIGLUCCI AND TERE FIGUERAS
After two days of questioning by federal anti-smuggling investigators,
baseball standout Andy Morales was set free by immigration authorities to pursue
his dream of playing in the major leagues.
Morales and his eight traveling companions, who were dropped off
Tuesday on the Marquesas islands off Key West, were bused out of the Krome
immigration detention center in the late afternoon Thursday to an exuberant
reunion amid hugs and high-fives with friends and relatives in Little Havana.
Accounts that Morales and the others gave investigators of their
meanwhile, suggest that smugglers who allegedly charged them $5,000 each for
the trip left the group in a precarious spot.
The Border Patrol said the nine apparently spent more than 30
hours on an
uninhabited island in the Marquesas with only a gallon of water and virtually no
In a sign of the interest that Morales' arrival has drawn in baseball
athlete's agent fielded calls from three major league teams during the half-hour
drive from Krome to a round of health screenings and routine processing in Little
``They wanted to know if it was true he was out, and they expressed
agent Gus Dominguez said.
He declined to identify the teams.
When the 25-year-old Morales emerged from the white Immigration
Naturalization Service van outside a state clinic, he made the sign of the cross,
kissed his fingers and pointed to the sky. He then bent down and pressed his
hands against the asphalt of the parking lot.
Six weeks ago, Morales' first attempt to defect ended in repatriation
by the Coast
Until they got their first glimpse of Morales as a free man, friends
had feared the government would try again to send him back, in spite of
assurances from the INS that he would be processed and released because he
had reached dry land on the second try.
``It wasn't until that moment that I realized he was safe -- that
it was all over,'' said
Morales' childhood friend Justo Pozo.
Morales, looking tired but happy, made only a brief statement
upon leaving the
clinic an hour and a half later.
``I'm very happy to have arrived in the United States,'' he said.
``You'll have to
forgive me. This is the most tense and nervous I've been in my entire life.''
Morales, who was accompanied in the voyage by his brother-in-law,
will live with
his father-in-law, Carlos Castillo, in west Miami-Dade County.
``I'm so very proud. I finally have my sons here -- my two sons,'' Castillo said.
A hard-hitting former member of Cuba's powerful national team,
Morales starred in the squad's 12-6 defeat of the Orioles in Baltimore last year.
But he was dropped from the team after he was spotted speaking to Dominguez
QUIT LOCAL TEAM
Although Cuban authorities allowed Morales to rejoin his old local
team, he soon
quit. His father in Cuba said Morales was depressed, in part because he was
followed constantly by state security agents.
It's unknown how he eluded them. But the Border Patrol is certain
and his companions were smuggled into Florida and has launched an
investigation. Joseph Mellia, an assistant Border Patrol chief, said several
passengers admitted paying smugglers $5,000 each to bring them from Cuba on
``We have the people talking, they're giving some information.
We got some
leads, and we're following up on them,'' Mellia said.
According to the Cubans, Mellia said, the group left from the
coast west of
Havana around midnight Sunday and arrived in the Marquesas, which are U.S.
soil, around dawn Monday.
``They were told, `When you see a passing boat, just wave.' That
is what they told
us. Sometimes they're truthful, sometimes not,'' Mellia said.
The nine Cubans, all adult men except for one minor female, were
picked up by
the Coast Guard on Tuesday after someone -- it's unclear who -- called to report
migrants on the island.
One member of the group, however, disputed the Border Patrol's account.
Alberto Gutiérrez, 26, said they left from Varadero, Cuba,
around 6 p.m. Sunday,
arriving at the Marquesas three hours later.
He also insisted: ``We didn't pay any money to anybody.''
The Border Patrol interrogation, which a government source characterized
extensive, accounted for the unusually long delay in Morales' release.
Agents are also conducting an investigation into Morales' previous
reach Florida, and two Hialeah men remain in INS custody as the suspected
smugglers. Mellia said the passengers are not the target and will not be criminally
Dominguez, the sports agent, said he regards Morales as a surefire
prospect. But he said he had not discussed plans with his client, who has several
options. If he establishes residency in the United States, Morales would be
subject under major-league rules to an amateur draft in 2001, which means he
could negotiate only with the team that selects him.
He could also, as other defectors have done, establish residency
in a foreign
country. In that case, he would be free to negotiate with any interested teams and
eventually sign a more lucrative contract.
Dominguez declined to discuss the Cuban government's treatment
noting that his wife and infant son -- who have received U.S. immigrant visas and
are awaiting Cuban authorization to leave -- remained behind.