Search

Arrival of an Angel

March 22, 2010
March 22, 2010

Table of Contents
March 22, 2010

GOLF PLUS
LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
NCAA TOURNAMENT PREVIEW 2010
Departments

Arrival of an Angel

After his breakthrough 2009 season, it might feel like slugger Kendry Morales was an overnight success. But for the best hitter to come out of Cuba in a generation, the road to Anaheim was anything but short and easy

This is an article from the March 22, 2010 issue

The sirens cut through the Cuban night like knives through sailcloth, and soon Kendry Morales was in handcuffs. The tongue of a tipster, a snitch—who it was, he still does not know—had led to the quick end of Morales's first attempt to defect from the country of his birth. It was Dec. 31, 2003. Morales spent New Year's Day, and the two days after that, in jail. Cuba is shaped like a hand cupped over a mug of coffee, and it does not easily part its fingers to allow its sons to escape, particularly when they are 20 years old and can hit better than anyone Castro's baseball-mad nation had produced in a generation.

Morales, though, hadn't been hitting anything, not recently. In November 2003 the young slugger had been whisked back to the island from Panama in the middle of an Olympic qualifying tournament, and shortly thereafter he disappeared from the lineup of Havana's Industriales, Cuba's premier club team. He displayed a poor attitude in training, Cuban officials said. They were experimenting with new players, they said. The truth was that the authorities believed that Morales was planning to make a run for it. Even if he hadn't been, he was now. "I had to leave," he says. "I was 20 years old, and they suspended me from playing baseball. That was my career. There was no way I was going to stay there."

Morales says that during the next six months he tried 10 more times to defect, always by sea, always under the cover of night, always unsuccessfully. Sometimes he was caught. He was jailed twice more. More often, the lancha—the small boat that was supposed to pick him up and carry him to a bigger boat, which would carry him to his future—never showed up, its pilots having lost their way or their nerve. Finally, on June 8, 2004, the lancha came. Morales and 18 of his countrymen boarded it, and no one showed up to stop them. Two hundred and thirty-five minutes later—you remember precisely how many when you spend every minute scanning the horizon for flashing lights—Morales set foot on American soil, in the Florida Keys. It was 11:55 p.m., and the life that Morales had known, first as a national hero whose name was regularly chanted by 40,000 people, then as a national pariah, was over.

Five years later, in 2009, Kendry Morales seemed to be an overnight sensation when, in his first full season in the major leagues, the 26-year-old hit .306, led the Angels with 34 home runs and 108 RBIs, and placed fifth in the American League MVP voting. But if last year's breakout star was an overnight success, it had been a very long night.

Eddie Bane, though just 5'9", had been an exceptional pitcher at Arizona State, a lefthander with a perfect game on his résumé and a curveball that bent enough to persuade the Twins to select him with the 11th pick of the 1973 draft. Then he lost his curveball, and he became just another tiny guy without any stuff who was able to hang around baseball's fringes because of the hand with which he threw. He pitched in 44 games in parts of three seasons with the Twins, going 7--13 with a 4.66 ERA and allowing more than a hit per inning. Bane didn't play in another big league game after 1976, when he was 24. He spent a few years in the White Sox system, and then in 1980 he was traded to the Royals. Not long after, that was that.

By 1984 Bane had started to think that he might make a much better scout than pitcher, and Bob Quinn, the Indians' scouting director, called him up for an interview.

"I accept the job," Bane said.

"I haven't offered it to you," Quinn said.

"Well, I accept," Bane said.

Bane made $16,500 that season, the first of 27 years that he has served in the scouting departments of four organizations. Bane spent years on the road, scouting such players as Albert Belle and Greg Swindell for the Indians; Eric Gagné, Paul Konerko and Paul Lo Duca for the Dodgers; and Josh Hamilton for Tampa Bay. By the late '90s he had started to hear about a teenaged Cuban phenom who could hit for average and power from both sides of the plate. Bane kept track of Morales as best he could, trolling for Cuban box scores and watching international tournaments—the only opportunities for American scouts to see Cuban players in person. "They make it real hard on you," he says.

Morales was a fixture on Bane's radar by the summer of 2001, when the young Cuban used a bat held together with duct tape to hit an opposite-field home run off a 17-year-old American lefty named Scott Kazmir in the Junior Pan American Championships in Camag√ºey, Cuba. Morales, a corner infielder and outfielder, also pitched a complete game in the tournament, blowing away hitters with a 92-mph fastball. By October 2003, when Bane became the Angels' director of scouting—and by which time Morales had become the first teenager to start for Cuba's national team since the great Omar Linares in the 1980s and had hit .348 with 30 home runs and 124 RBIs in 146 games over two seasons with the Industriales—Eddie Bane was in love.

They called it a resort, and it had the all-inclusive meal plan of a resort, but it wasn't the Ritz-Carlton. Eddie Bane likes Ritz-Carltons. After Morales's defection one of his then representatives, a Canadian accountant named John DiManno, set up camp in the Dominican Republic so that Morales could work out and, more important, establish residency, which would allow him to avoid entering the major league draft and instead sign a lucrative contract as an international free agent. So Eddie Bane, who will never commit to a player until he's watched him in person, spoken with him and looked him in the eyes, traveled to the Dominican Republic in the fall of 2004. He and a few of his scouts spent five days with Morales at a no-frills beachfront hotel near the Angels' developmental academy in San Pedro de Macorís.

"An agent, in general, wants to smother his client and not let you see things, and I really don't understand why, because we want to like the player," says Bane. "Kendry's representatives wanted to be a mother hen to him. We wanted to see Kendry work without those guys." Bane and his men ate every meal with Morales. They sat out on the beach and laughed together at the antics of an Argentine film crew. And they watched him play. Bane graded Morales as a 70-to-80 hitter—80 is the top of the scouting scale—with 70-to-80 power. At the end of the week Bane reported back to G.M. Bill Stoneman that he had to have him. Other clubs—"the same suspects as normal," Bane says, meaning the Yankees and the Red Sox and other big-spending teams—were interested, but all had reservations. "I heard that the offers weren't coming through like they should have, and I was shocked and amazed," Bane says. Other clubs thought Morales would never hit lefthanded pitching. They thought he was fat. They were wary of Cuban hitters; while pitchers like Livan Hernandez and Orlando Hernandez had excelled in the majors after defecting, it had been years since a Cuba-developed position player had made an impact in the United States, longer still since the days of Tony Oliva and Tony Perez and Bert Campaneris. "You started hearing that they didn't think he had a position he could play, all this and that," Bane says. "I saw a different player."

After nearly a month of dickering, Stoneman signed Morales to an incentive-laden six-year, $4.5 million deal, with a $3 million signing bonus, on Dec. 1, 2004. The Angels hoped he'd be able to join them for spring training in Tempe the following February, but it took more than five months of paper shuffling for him to be cleared to work in the U.S. He finally debuted for Class A Rancho Cucamonga on May 21. With his first swing—his first in a competitive game in more than a year and a half—he sent a ball high and deep toward right center. The ball cleared the scoreboard before Morales made a move toward first base. "He threw the bat down on top of home plate and watched it go, did a real circus trip around the bases," says Bane. "I remember Bruce Hines, our minor league coordinator at the time, said, 'Uh-oh, we're in trouble here.'"

In Cuba, Morales explains, fans expect a slugger to put on a show. But in the U.S. such displays tend to get someone beaned. "Well, not me, but the guy behind me," Morales says with a chuckle. "I was adjusting. I didn't know how the system here works."

Learning to quicken his home run trot was just one adjustment Morales would have to make. The Angels like even their sushi-grade prospects cooked through, and Morales, says manager Mike Scioscia, "was as raw as any player that I'd seen come into minor league baseball."

"Everyone could see the extraordinary talent he had," Scioscia continues, "but Baseball 101, it was not there. In everything from baserunning—his secondary lead was not even there—to positioning himself in the field. Kendry had just played baseball, and probably they'd just let him swing the bat. He had to learn to play the whole game."

There was much to learn off the field as well. Morales, who had spent his first 20 years in a land of scarcity, suddenly found himself in a land of plenty, and with dollars to spend. Tony Reagins, then the Angels' director of player development and since 2007 the club's G.M., recalls taking Morales shopping at Los Angeles's tony Beverly Center in 2005 for clothes and a cellphone. "He had an extremely limited wardrobe," Reagins says. "Like, jeans and a shirt." Food, never abundant in Cuba, was now available, cheap, on every street corner, and every clubhouse had buckets of candy and freezers full of ice cream. In his early days with the Angels, Morales was rarely seen without a glove on his left hand and a Drumstick cone in his right. "With his body type"—6'1", 225 pounds and barrel-chested, nearly as thick sternum to spine as side to side—"he can put on weight quickly if he doesn't watch it," says Reagins. "As he's matured, as he's gotten more accustomed to the surroundings, he's improved in all areas. Not just on the baseball field. In all areas."

Now? "You touch him, he's like a rock," reports teammate Torii Hunter. "Oh, my god."

The Angels brought Morales up to Anaheim for stints in 2006, '07 and '08—he hit .249 with 12 homers and 45 RBIs in 377 total at bats during those seasons—but they really wanted him down on the farm, where he could continue to develop into the player they thought he'd become. With Casey Kotchman and then, briefly, Mark Teixeira manning first base, they didn't have a place for him, anyway. His teammates knew what he could do ("When I saw him take batting practice for the first time, in 2008, and they told me he didn't have a starting job and was going to Triple A, I was like, What!" says Hunter), even if scouts and statistical experts still had their doubts. As late as 2008 the writers of Baseball Prospectus opined, "In the long term, Morales may end up being just a very good pinch hitter."

The Angels felt differently. After the 2008 season Teixeira signed an eight-year, $180 million free-agent deal with the Yankees, and Anaheim handed the first base job to Morales. In his first year in New York, Teixeira hit 39 homers and drove in 122 runs—numbers that Morales, despite hitting fifth or sixth in a more pitcher-friendly ballpark and making only $600,000, nearly matched. "[The Angels] took some heat last off-season for letting Teixeira go," says Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. "They were vilified by some, but the reality is, they were right. They had a player that basically gave them similar production for a fraction of the price."

In addition Morales, formerly the man without a position, was the best defensive first baseman in the league, according to the advanced statistic Ultimate Zone Rating. He was, according to Rangers manager Ron Washington, "a very good base runner." He hit from both sides of the plate—.309 as a lefty, .296 as a righty. And, under the tutelage of Bobby Abreu ("We just have a little conversation sometimes, in the outfield, during batting practice," Abreu says), he turned into a more patient hitter, drawing a walk every 13.5 plate appearances, after drawing one every 18.2 in the minors.

He had become a complete player. "It took him maybe a little longer than some guys," says Scioscia. "But once he got it, man, he was there."

It was 8 a.m. on the morning of March 3, and while many of his bleary-eyed teammates were still changing out of their jeans and bejeweled T-shirts, Kendry Morales sat serenely in front of his locker in Tempe Diablo Stadium, in full uniform and spikes, a bat leaning against his knee. After a trying off-season, he was itching to play. Last month it was reported that an ex-employee of his agents, Alan and Randy Hendricks, was being investigated by police in Coral Springs, Fla., for draining $300,000 from Morales's bank account. (He promptly switched agents, signing with Scott Boras.) Then Morales had to stay away from the Angels' spring facility until his work visa came through. He spent the last weeks of February working out and watching Olympic ice skating somewhere in Phoenix. The visa finally arrived on March 2, eight days after he was supposed to have reported to camp.

For the most part, though, Morales's life, so long in flux, was in order. His wife, Yarley, and mother, Noevia, years ago defected from Cuba—he and Yarley live in Coral Springs and have two children, Hanely, 2, and Kendry, three months. (Morales also has a six-year-old daughter, Andrea, from a previous relationship who is still in Cuba.) This spring he's sitting eight lockers away from his old foe, Kazmir ("The first thing I said when I was traded here last August was, 'Me and you got a history,'" Kazmir says), and next to Hunter. Like his teammates, Hunter calls Morales Bam-Bam and jokes with him when the still significant language barrier permits.

Morales is Anaheim's most fearsome offensive weapon now that Vladimir Guerrero is a Ranger. Of course the Angels, fanatically team-first, would never say as much. "I think he's going to be a major part of it, but there's not one guy that has to carry this thing," says Scioscia. But still: After years of struggling to reach destination after destination, only to once and again be turned back or delayed, he has made it. "He's just a good player," says Bane. "You get so proud. Shoot, I've bragged about Kendry for so long, I'm sure everybody got tired of hearing it."

Morales has made it, but he still has dreams. "What I dream is for things to get better in Cuba so I can see my family, and go back and forth," he says. "With baseball, just to keep working hard and see if maybe I can make the All-Star Game." As far as he's traveled, that trip—the All-Star Game is in Anaheim this July—shouldn't prove much of a bother at all.

Now on SI.com

Get news, insight and analysis from Tom Verducci every Tuesday at SI.com/baseball

"I had to leave," Morales says of Cuba. "There was no way I was going to stay there."
"It took a little longer than some guys," says Scioscia. "But once he got it, man, he was there."
PHOTOPhotograph by TIM MANTOANIBASH AND CARRY With Guerrero gone, Morales, who led the Angels in homers, RBIs and slugging in '09, will be asked to hoist the Angels' offense on his back.PHOTOCRISTOBAL HERRERA/AP (CUBA)HAVANA GOOD TIME Long before he was swinging for the fences with the Angels, Morales was a national hero and teen sensation for the Cuban national team (below).PHOTOBRAD MANGIN (ANGELS)[See caption above]PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (MORALES IN ACTION)WELL ROUNDED By one advanced defensive metric, the slugging Morales was also baseball's best first baseman in '09.PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above]