Top Cuban baseball hitter defects

SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - The top slugger of Cuba’s last baseball season, Alexei Ramirez, said on Thursday he has defected in the Dominican Republican to fulfill his dream of playing in the U.S. Major Leagues.

Alexei Ramirez of Cuba scores in the seventh inning against Panama during their World Baseball Classic game in San Juan, Puerto Rico March 8, 2006. Ramirez said on Thursday he has defected in the Dominican Republican to fulfill his dream of playing in the U.S. Major Leagues. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

The 25-year-old right-handed hitter, who plays outfield and second base and helped Cuba win the gold medal in the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro in July, adds to a list of athletes who have defected from Communist-run Cuba in recent years.

“The dream of every baseball player is to get to the Major Leagues, and I want to be part of the world’s best league too,” Ramirez told Reuters in a hotel room in the capital of the Dominican Republic.

His agent, Puerto Rican lawyer Jaime Torres, said he has already received dozens of calls from American baseball teams interested in Ramirez, including the Texas Rangers, which sent a representative to Santo Domingo to speak to the player.

Sports officials in Havana said Ramirez was due to return to Cuba on Thursday, but failed to take his flight from Santo Domingo, where he had been visiting the family of his Dominican wife Mildred since last week.

Ramirez said he has applied for residency in the Dominican Republic, which would allow him to become a free agent in the U.S. baseball leagues.

In the last season in Cuba, Ramirez’s batting average was .335 and he was the top scorer with 20 home runs and 68 assists. He has notched up 87 career home-runs, playing for his native Pinar del Rio province for the last seven years.

“I want to be a slugger. I have played outfield and second base, but I also like short stop,” he said. Ramirez said his baseball idols in that fielding position are American Ozzie Smith, Cuban Rey Ordonez and Venezuelan Omar Vizquel.

“I don’t consider myself a deserter. I took this step to be with my family,” he said.

During the Pan American Games, a Cuban handball star and a gym coach defected. Two top Cuban boxers, two-time Olympic champion Guillermo Rigondeaux and world amateur champion Erislandy Lara, toyed with defection but apparently changed their minds and were deported back to Cuba from Brazil.

Cuba has trouble holding onto its star baseball players who are poorly paid and attracted by million-dollar contracts and fame in the United States.

In 2004, four promising players defected, including Kendry Morales, a first baseman with long-ball power.

Two years earlier, Cuba’s best pitcher Jose Contreras defected and touched off a bidding war between the New York Yankees, who won, and the Boston Red Sox. He now plays for the Chicago White Sox on a $27 million four-year contract.

Other famous Cuban defections include Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and his half-brother Livan Hernandez, who took the Marlins to World Series victory in 1997.

Torres, who also represents Contreras, said Ramirez will do try-outs in mid-October to show his talent to U.S. scouts.