- Enrique Rojas, ESPNdeportes
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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Kendry Morales is proud of his Hispanic heritage. Double heritage, that is.
Morales, who left his native Cuba in a raft in 2004, is also a Dominican citizen.
To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, the normally reserved first baseman for the Los Angeles Angels -- with stats this year worthy of an MVP -- opened the doors of his house for a crew from ESPNdeportes.com. (Watch the special feature on "SportsCenter" on Oct. 4 at 11 p.m. ET on ESPN Deportes, and at 10 p.m. on ESPN 2, Mexico, as well as on ESPN's domestic channels on a date to be determined.)
"I'm proud of being a Dominican citizen. It's a chance not everyone has," said Morales while he prepared a traditional "Cuban foamy coffee," with beans shipped from Havana, in his apartment in Anaheim.
"I'm proud of the chance I have to travel [to the Dominican Republic] every year, of being a native. They even gave me the key to the city of San Francisco de Macoris. There's no bigger honor than that," said Morales about the treatment he's received from his adopted country.
Morales, a switch hitter, was a sensation in the Cuban baseball league before he turned 20, playing several positions and even pitching.
In 2002, at the age of 19, he had the best season in the history of the National Series for a rookie -- he batted .324 with 21 home runs and 82 RBIs playing with the Industriales de La Habana -- and joined the national team.
However, his career in Cuba was short. In November 2003, he was sent back to the island from the Americas Olympic qualifier in Panama under the suspicion that he had been in contact with a professional baseball agent. Morales didn't know it at the time, but he would never wear the national team uniform again.
"That's not true. I never talked to any agent," he said. "But from that moment on, I just wanted to leave. I tried to do it several times without success, occasionally ending up in jail."
His 12th attempt to leave Cuba was a success.
In June 2004, Morales arrived on United States soil on a raft. Following the same steps as many of his fellow countrymen, Morales applied for residency in a third country, which gave him the chance to sign as a free agent.
He moved to the Dominican Republic, where he played winter ball as a foreigner backup for the Estrellas Orientales during the 2004-05 season, and then signed a contract for $4.5 million over six years (including a $3 million bonus) with the Angels.
The following year, the Angels sent this valuable prospect to the Arizona Fall League. At the time, Morales didn't consider going back to the Dominican Republic, since he was on his way to accomplishing his goal of playing in the United States.
Nevertheless, in 2006, Morales became a Dominican citizen and got the right to enter that country's draft as a native player. The Gigantes del Cibao had the first pick and didn't hesitate to select him in front of other top prospects such as Johnny Cueto, Jose Arredondo, Sammy Gervacio, Ramon Troncoso and Radhames Liz.
Since then, Morales has been a key player for Gigantes and one of the most popular in San Francisco de Macoris, on the northern side of the island. In three seasons with the Gigantes, he hit .308 with totals of 23 home runs and 83 RBIs.
Living in the Dominican Republic during the winters not only helped Morales improve as a batter and strengthen his offensive skills en route to the majors, but it also quenched his thirst for Cuba.
"We [Dominicans and Cubans] have almost the same habits, the same lifestyle. Being in Dominican Republic is like being in Cuba," said Morales, while admitting that he has suffered for not being able to go back to his native country for more than five years.
"It's been really hard. But I have to move forward. I have to be strong," he said.
"Well, I'm not alone in this. There are a lot of athletes and people in Miami who are unable to go to Cuba. I believe that when you go away, you leave everything behind -- your family, your friends, your fans," said Morales.
"It's really hard, but you have to get over it. You have to stay positive in order to be productive," he added.
Homesickness still bothers Morales, who got the chance to be in the starting lineup for the Angels this year after posting a .334 average with 55 home runs and 232 RBIs in 303 games over four seasons in the minor leagues.
"I'm not a very talkative person. I need to break the ice first," he said. "Initially, I couldn't express myself. I couldn't let go. Dominican Erick Aybar and Venezuelan Alberto Callaspo were the only ones who I used to talk to on the team. After a time, I developed the confidence and things were a lot easier."
Calm. Trust. Ease.
With such elements at hand, Morales has developed into one of the best hitters on the Angels, who are about to clinch their third straight American League West Division title.
With the Angels, Morales currently has a batting average of .298 with 30 home runs, 41 doubles and 98 RBIs. He leads the team in home runs and RBIs.
"I always knew I would be able to bat in the major leagues. If I could do it in the Dominican League, I was going to do it in the major leagues. The Dominican League is harder for a batter than the major leagues," said Morales.
Enrique Rojas is a reporter and columnist for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN.com.
How did the Angels' Kendry Morales become an MVP candidate in the majors? By conquering a tougher league first.