-- Cuban slugger Kendry Morales obtained residency in the Dominican Republic, making him eligible to negotiate a free agent contract with a major league team, he said Thursday.
Morales, a 21-year-old switch-hitting outfielder and first baseman, left Cuba in June on a boat with 18 others, a few weeks before the wife of White Sox pitcher Jose Contreras defected.
Morales landed in Miami and was granted asylum in the United States. He later left for the Dominican Republic, where authorities granted him residency this week.
The move allows him to avoid a special U.S. baseball draft for Cuban players that would have prevented him from negotiating contract terms. A Cuban player that acquires residency in a third country is eligible for free agent status.
"I'm so happy that I finished this step in the process to get to the major leagues in the United States," Morales told the Associated Press. "Now that I have Dominican residence, I will begin hearing offers."
Morales became a sensation in Cuban baseball two years ago. He played in Havana for the highly successful Industrialists, batting .324 with 21 home runs, 82 RBI and 60 runs scored. He was immediately called up to the national team.
Cuban authorities, however, later cut Morales from both the national team and the Industrialists because they suspected he wanted to defect during a pre-Olympic tournament in Panama last year.
They also did not select him to be on the team that competed in the Pan American Games in Santo Domingo in 2003.
"I only want to play baseball -- something they were stopping me from doing in Cuba," Morales said. "In Cuba, I never dreamed of the major leagues as a possibility. My dreams were to play for the national team. When I fulfilled those dreams, they shattered them for me."
Morales joins several other Cubans who chose to establish residence in this Spanish-speaking Caribbean nation. In 1996, Osvaldo Fernandez and Livan Hernandez became Dominican residents before signing contracts with major league teams.