Long trip north

BOB ELLIOTT -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

John Di Manno was there that night at the SkyDome, along with 52,194 others.

Di Manno jumped up from his seat in the 500 Level in left field when Joe Carter homered off Mitch Williams on Oct. 23, 1993 to give the Blue Jays back-to-back World Series wins.

He watched shortstop Tony Fernandez bolt from the dugout to hug Carter and Paul Molitor and the rest as they whooped it up at home plate.

And then he watched Carter's home run again and again as it was replayed on the JumboTron and the roar grew and grew.

The Toronto accountant was, and is, a baseball fan. Little did he know that night he would grow to be a player.

No, he doesn't swing a bat, but this winter he was a player -- acting as the representative for switch-hitting outfielder Kendry Morales, a highly sought-after Cuban defector who hit the free-agent market in the fall of 2004.

The Anaheim Angels landed free-agent Morales by giving him a six-year, major-league deal with a $3-million US signing bonus. Morales signed a split contract that will start him off at $100,000 in the minors and $300,000 the first three years he is in the majors. In all, he is guaranteed to earn $1.5 million in the minors and $2.85 in the majors.

Once he gets his three years of service time in the majors, he is eligible for salary arbitration and the worth of the contract could jump anywhere from $6 million to $10 million.

How in the world did it unfold that there was a Scott Boras in the making living and working in Toronto?

When he went looking for talent to represent, Di Manno, 41, of Woodbridge, didn't hang around Connorvale Park in Etobicoke.

THE PLAYER WEARING A TIE

Di Manno was a player for the Toronto Lizzies at Christie Pits until he was 14. He graduated from St. Michael's College School and the University of Toronto.

While going to school, he worked for Royal Trust at its Bathurst and Eglinton branch, managed by Lena Liscio, who trained him in the business.

Upon graduation he began working for Price Waterhouse in 1987. Then Di Manno went to work for his current firm, DSP chartered accountants and often used the company's season's tickets to the Jays games.

In the spring, he figures he made 10 to 15 trips to Dunedin, spring home of the Jays, watching the games, drinking a Labatt beer.

Di Manno first met Fernandez in 1990 at Grant Field at an autograph session. It wasn't the final time he would meet him.

Di Manno spent his holidays in Cuba, like a lot of Canadian fun and sun-seekers.

Unlike most Canadians who frequent Varadero Beach, he stayed in downtown Havana, usually at the Chateau Hotel.

In 2002, he was sitting at a patio cafe in downtown Havana one day when two friends introduced him to a young man. His name was Kendry Morales and he could play.

"Kendry was 18 1/2 when I first met him. A couple of guys introduced us," Di Manno said. "I speak Spanish fairly well and Italian and Spanish are very close."

Di Manno returned to Toronto, "googled" Morales, checked out some baseball websites in Cuba and kept in touch.

THE PLAYER IN UNIFORM

Morales was in the Cuban lineup at the 2000 world youth championship in Edmonton, hitting .333. On the mound he struck out 17 in 15 innings.

"He hit fourth for them and was one of their better arms too," Greg Hamilton, coach of Canada's national junior team, said from Ottawa. "He competes and has a real loose swing and gets good extension like (Canadian-born slugger) Justin Morneau."

While Di Manno watched from cyberspace, others watched from up close.

Angels scout Clay Daniel saw Team USA left-hander Scott Kazmir hook up against Cuba in 2001. Morales started for Cuba and pitched a complete game, knocked in three runs and scored the other with a homer, double and a single in a 4-1 Cuba victory.

Kazmir was selected 15th overall, behind Canadians Adam Loewen (fourth) and Jeff Francis (ninth). Represented by Jeff Moorad and Brian Peters, Kazmir was given a $2.15-million by the New York Mets in the June draft of 2002.

From the youth level, Morales, who was earning $6 a month, graduated to the Cuban national team in 2002 -- the first teenager to start for Cuba since legendary third baseman Omar Linares, once acclaimed as the best player not in the majors. He set a rookie record with 23 homers and 82 RBIs in the Serie Nacional.

Playing for the Industrialies, he batted .391 with nine homers and 42 runs batted in during the 2002-03 winter season. And Morales wasn't a bit-part player. He was placed in the cleanup spot at the 2003 World Cup in Havana.

In the win-or-else quarter-final game, Cuba trailed lightly regarded Brazil in the ninth when Morales hit a two-out, two-strike home run to lift Cuba off the mat.

Cuba then beat Chinese Taipei 6-3 in the semi-final as Morales hit a grand slam, then took care of Panama 4-2 in the final for its 24th World Cup in 27 appearances.

"He has done everything, and on a pretty big stage," Hamilton said.

In November of 2003, Morales accompanied Cuba to the pre-Olympic qualifier in Panama.

"His name was on the roster but, when we went to the technical meeting, we were told he'd gone home," Hamilton said. Cuban officials, fearing Morales would defect, sent him home.

Morales was hitting .361 with two homers and 17 RBIs when Cuban officials suspended him in December of 2003.

Morales and Di Manno, however, kept in touch by phone.

THE GREAT ESCAPE AND THE REUNION

Morales was one of 16 Cubans who walked for 24 hours, leaving on a Saturday, to get to a certain location on the island. He says he carried a woman who had fainted the final hour.

After sleeping the night in a field, Morales and the others rowed across the Gulf of Mexico for 18 hours to land at Key West, Fla., shortly after midnight Monday, June 7.

"Kendry didn't have any relatives in Miami. His first call was to me in Toronto," Di Manno said of the call he took that morning.

A Cuban defector lands and his first call is to a 416 area code? How much behind-the-scenes work went into this?

"When you touch ground in the United States, immigration automatically cannot deport a Cuban," Di Manno said.

Di Manno rushed to the airport and jumped on a 4 o'clock Air Canada flight.

Morales was examined at immigration, given some clothes and was released at 9 p.m.

"It was like Kendry was in a state of shock," Di Manno said. "His hands were raw from the rowing.

"Plus, we wanted some privacy."

Morales left his mother and his wife behind, and Di Manno headed to a Cuban restaurant where the young slugger ordered breaded streak with rice, beans and potatoes.

People were hunting for Morales. Not Cuban nationals, but agents wanting to represent him in contract talks with major-league clubs.

"He was the most famous Cuban player to come out since Orlando Hernandez," said Eddie Bane, the Angels scouting director. "John got him out of there -- away from the phone calls -- and they relaxed."

They headed to Disney World, and Morales rode "every ride in the park, including one that shoots you into the air 60 feet, he had no fear," Di Manno said.

Morales asked his representative to go with him on a few of the rides. "Are you crazy?" Di Manno answered.

THE CHASE FOR THE PLAYER

For Morales, there were two choices: Stay in the U.S., and go into baseball's amateur draft -- which would limit him to a mandated amount of money based on where he was drafted -- or, head to another country.

Di Manno and Morales flew to the Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in July to gain residency status. Di Manno hired an immigration lawyer.

Morales had to get into baseball shape again since he hadn't played since 2003, when plans for him to defect were uncovered.

Di Manno made the rounds in the Domincan, setting up everything Morales needed: An apartment, a place to work out and dealt with the lawyers.

Morales worked out at the Mountain of Dreams in San Cristobal, an academy run by former Cincinnati Reds right-hander Jose Rijo. The New York Yankees rent fields from Rijo.

"Jose gave us bats and balls, had his kids chased down the fly balls when Kendry was taking batting practice," Di Manno said this week from Santo Domingo. "Anything we needed, Jose provided."

And when Morales was ready, it was show time. On Sept. 30, Di Manno staged a showcase for everyone and anyone who was interested in coming. All 30 teams had scouts there.

The Blue Jays had scout Alex Arias there. Bob Engle, the Seattle Mariners' Latin America scout, was there. Engle is the former scouting director with the Jays and was responsible for landing Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter and Shannon Stewart through the draft and, when he scouted Latin America for the Jays, Guillermo Quiroz and Gustavo Chacin.

"Bob and I talked, reminiscing about the good old days with the Jays," Di Manno said.

Angels first base coach Alfredo Griffin -- another ex-Jay -- was there, as was Fernandez who was working out young infielders.

The highlight of this from start to finish for Di Manno?

"This might sound stupid, but for me, walking around the field with all these people I'd read about and watched ... Alfredo Griffin, Tony Fernandez and Jose Rijo. Tony is a nice man."

The Yanks worked out Morales four times. The New York Mets, the Cleveland Indians, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Florida Marlins had private workouts.

Somewhere along the line, a scout compared him to a switch-hitting Miguel Cabrera of the Marlins.

A month after the showcase, Bane and Angels scout Clay Daniel arrived in the Dominican. They spent five days with Morales, staying at a hotel in San Pedro.

The two sides agreed to a deal on Dec. 1. Since Di Manno is not yet an accredited agent, he had David Valdez, an agent out of Miami, finalize the deal.

After signing, Morales played with Estrellas of the Dominican Winter League.

"I read stories where he would have been a first-rounder. Who knows?" Bane said.

Asked how Morales compared to Linares, Bane answered: "That's a good comparison, a heavyweight one."

There are problems for Morales or any player who goes from $6 a month income to roughly $250,000 a month.

Osvaldo Fernandez, who signed with the San Francisco Giants, and Livan Hernandez, who signed with the Marlins, both ballooned - physically. Hernandez was able to pitch with his added weight, Fernandez was not.

"He is going to have the normal barriers, like language," Bane said. "But we did a scouting job, looked at his tools. We couldn't go off stats. Were his home runs with the Cuban national team against the Dutch or Team USA?

"At the plate, he's very calm, he's a good-looking switch-hitter. We think he can handle the velocity."

The Angels placed Morales on their 40-man roster, with Bane saying: "He's the best position player to come out of Cuba, but that's not saying a lot because most of their guys have been pitchers."

THE MEETING OF THE MONEY MINDS

Anaheim owner Arte Moreno and general manager Bill Stoneman hope he can make the opening-day roster.

The financial end of Morales' contract isn't tossed around by the scouting directors. So, Di Manno talked with Stoneman.

Before joining the Montreal Expos front office Stoneman worked for Royal Trust, as Di Manno had. When Stoneman was a branch manager and then an area manager in the Toronto region, he also worked with Lena Liscio, proving once again the symmetry of baseball ... and banking.

"John did a good job, he has a legitimate interest in the player," Stoneman said.

Morales remains in the Dominican as lawyers work on finalizing his visa.

"When you do an international deal, it's just phone calls here and there," Di Manno said. "You hope you can get a feel. We worked hard. I've been around a lot of athletes through friends and sometimes what people see on TV is not what you see in person.

"I lucked out on this. He is a great kid."


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