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Rodriguez holds Cuban strikeout record

MIAMI -- One of Cuba's top pitchers defected in an
undisclosed country so he can begin playing professionally in the
United States, a Cuban exile leader said Friday.

Maels Rodriguez and another player, Yobal Duenas, were reported
missing by Cuban authorities Saturday.

The Miami Herald speculated that the pair might be in El Salvador.

"They're safe," said Joe Garcia, executive director of the
Cuban American National Foundation. He declined further comment.

If the players seek political asylum or residency outside the
United States, they most likely will be declared free agents by
Major League Baseball and be able to sign with any team.

The players' Miami-based agent, Henry Vilar, did not return
telephone messages Friday.

Rodriguez, a 24-year-old right-hander, is one of Cuba's top
pitchers and his fastball is said to regularly top 100 mph.

"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."

Rodriguez set the single-season strikeout record in Cuba with 263 in
178 1/3 innings three years ago. This season, he was 8-3 in 113
innings with 117 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.11. Cuban officials
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'm going to demonstrate that I can still throw 100,"
Rodriguez said Thursday on Miami Spanish-language radio station
WQBA-AM. "These are things that they invent to cut a little off
the careers of some athletes."

Duenas, a second baseman, is a former Cuban stolen base
champion. At 31, he is on the down side of a career in which he
debuted with the Cuban national league at 17.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.