Morales made his mark in Cuba

Now Kendry Morales is a candidate for Most Valuable Player in the American League, enjoying all the things that come with stardom. His story of escape from Cuba is famous, as is his success.

When I met him six years ago, only a handful of Americans had ever heard his name.

I was a newspaper reporter for the Kansas City Star, and he was looking to build on an outstanding rookie season in the Cuban League. I don't think he'd ever given an interview to an American before, and when the story was complete, it ran under the headline "The Best Player You'll Never See." (Yeah, yeah. Called that one wrong. Six years late, the Star regrets the error.)

He seemed so young then. He lived with his mother, Noevia, in a small house on the outskirts of Havana. He was a man-child. "He doesn't iron," his mom told me. "He doesn't cook. He bathes himself, with lots of work. That's slang in Cuba. It means he doesn't do anything with housework. He sits at the table, over there, 'Noevia, Noevia, I'm starving.' I have to start cooking something very quickly."

I remember him being immature and shy, but mostly, I remember how important his success was to the fans of Cuban baseball. He was the pride of the nation: the first star to emerge from the generation of Cuban kids who grew up after the Soviet Union fell. Those had been brutal years on the island -- called the Special Period -- and the old-timers had feared baseball would be one of the casualties.

"Due to the crisis, the school didn't have the best living conditions, the best dining conditions," Morales told me. "Sometimes, the teachers had to miss a day of class because the school was too far away from downtown. Back then, we were all kids -- but we were all kids with a dream."

His first year, he broke every rookie record.

"They are filling this gap that we left behind," said Lourdes Gourriel, the manager of the Sancti Spiritus team and a former Cuban great. "They are doing it even better than we did. In the middle of this crisis, there are young ballplayers that have emerged. That shows that Cuba keeps producing baseball."

Everywhere we went, we found Kendry-mania. One afternoon, his mom stopped to see children playing in an empty lot. One of them wore her son's number: 8. She smiled when the kid's friend called him Kendry.

"Who is Kendry Morales?" she asked.

"I am Kendry Morales," the kid said, "and I am the best."

He laced the next pitch and ran the bases. After that, she pulled out photos from her purse. When the young ballplayers realized she was actually Kendry Morales' mother, they swarmed her. They showered her with hugs and kisses, asked whether they could come visit. This was Cuba in the winter of 2003.

"I believe that this is a historical moment in my career and life," Cuban legend Javier Mendez said. "He can become Cuba's greatest ballplayer of all time. Listen to me. What Kendry did last year as a rookie, no one has ever done. Not even Omar Linares -- the greatest figure in Cuban baseball."

That's what could have happened. Instead, undone by their own paranoia, the baseball authorities suspected Kendry of talking to an agent. They called him home from an international trip in November 2003, and he never played for the national team again. Only problem, he hadn't met with an agent.

That didn't matter. He had to leave. He tried to defect and ended up in a Cuban jail. Twelve times he tried, until he finally made the 90-mile journey, on a tiny raft with 18 other people dreaming of a new life.

He's found it.

Now he's a star baseball player again. His mother got out of Cuba, too. He's a citizen of the Dominican Republic, and they honor him as his home nation once did. I read Enrique Rojas' compelling story for ESPNdeportes.com, and one part struck me. He wrote about Kendry's making his own coffee.

It made me stop and realize how far he's come in the past six years.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.