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Marti is St. Louis' mystery man
Cuban defector Amaury Marti is a St. Louis Cardinals minor league prospect
Cuban defector Amaury Marti is a St. Louis Cardinals minor league prospect
By Chuck King

One of the most intriguing minor league prospects to come from the 2006 draft is a Cuban defector chosen by the St. Louis Cardinals.

His name is Amaury Cazana Marti. Or something like that. Of that, the Cardinals are pretty sure.

Before defecting, he played for the Cuban national baseball team as Amaury Casanas. He played independent baseball last year in Elmira as Amaury Casana. On the Double-A Springfield Cardinals roster, he's Amaury Marti.

Marti is his mother's maiden name. Casanas is correct, but he doesn't mind Marti because it reminds him of his mother.

In the clubhouse, where players sprout nicknames faster than Cardinal fans can smell a pennant, many teammates just called him Marty.

His age? Depends who you ask. Marti insists he's 27, and without a birth certificate or proof otherwise, that's what was listed on the Palm Beach roster. But multiple Cuban baseball sites place Marti closer to 32. The Springfield roster agrees.

How did he get here? That's a story Marti rarely shares.

"I know he came over on a boat," Warner said. "That's all I know about him."

Even that is only partially true. The boat ride was just the most harrowing part of the trip.

Cuban Baseball Player Escapes

Three years removed from playing on the Cuban national baseball team, Marti was playing in Cuba's highest league when he was approached with a dangerous proposal.

A man, who Marti would only describe as a baseball fanatic, offered to pay a smuggler's ransom, generally $10,000, to get Marti to baseball's promised land - America.

"In Cuba you play to a certain level and once you get to that level you can't play anymore baseball," said Marti, who speaks basic English but enlisted the help of teammate Jaime Garcia as a translator. "I wanted to prove I could play somewhere else higher."

Without telling anyone of his decision, Marti made his break for freedom hidden in the bow of a speedboat bound for Mexico. Scrunched in the front of the boat, Marti had plenty of time to think "bad thoughts." The Cuban police were terrifying. He didn't want to think about what would happen if they found him. The Mexican police were almost as big of a concern. If they caught him, Marti would be sent back to Cuba. Bad thoughts..

Marti doesn't want to talk about this part. When pressed, his answers become shorter. The chisled 190-pound hitting machine who just a few minutes prior had the carefree smile of a man getting paid to play a boy's game, covers his head with his hands and turns away.

He doesn't want to remember what he was thinking when, out of gas, the boat drifted haphazardly in rough seas.

"I don't want to talk about that," a visibly shaken Marti says without the use of his translator.

Marti's agent, Michelle DeAguirre, finishes the story.

A second boat eventually arrived with extra fuel. Marti finally made it to Mexico 21 hours after he left his homeland. A couple of days later, Marti ran the border at Brownsville, Texas.

Once in the States, Marti headed for Miami where the large Cuban population included Amaury Gonzalez, who Marti said is "like a brother." The pair grew up playing baseball together in Cuba.

Finally safe in the U.S., Marti's attention returned to baseball.

Back In The Game

The heavy August days had set in by the time Marti was able to get back into minor league baseball. With the help of famed international scout Fred Ferriera, Marti signed with Elmira of the Can-Am League, a low level of baseball even among the independent leagues.

There less than a month, Marti made an impression, hitting the kind of line drives rarely seen in the likes of Worcester, Mass., Montclair, N.J. and New Haven, Conn.

"They sound different of his bat," said Greg Keagle, who, as Elmira's manager simply called his slugger "Mo." "They looked different. He hit some home runs that no on else in the league could do. By the end of the year, every time up, you knew the ball was going to hit it hard. He has grown-man strength."

Marti hit .354 with two home runs and 12 RBIs in 17 games - strong numbers, but not enough to get the attention of major league scouts. When the season ended, he headed back to South Florida.

Which is why Marti spent early March bouncing from tryout to tryout at Florida spring training sites.

Marti wowed the St. Louis. He was invited back several times and even played a simulated game with the Double-A players. The Cardinals were ready to offer Marti a contract when they received an unexpected ruling from MLB's commissioner's office.

Unlike previous Cuban defectors Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras who established residency in countries other than the U.S., Marti applied for residency in America. Because he was now considered an American, baseball wouldn't grant Marti free agent status. If St. Louis wanted him, they'd have to wait three months and draft him.

The Flori Factor

And there was another snare. Before leaving Elmira in 2005, Marti signed a contract committing to return to the Pioneers in 2006.

Bob Flori, manager and head of player procurement for Shreveport of the American Association of Independent Baseball, traded for the rights to Marti. When his prized player didn't show up for the start of the season, Flori sent a memo informing major league baseball clubs that he had Marti's signed to a contract that could be bought for $85,000

Flori claims he inflated the price to get MLB's attention. What it did was anger Martt's agents at Win International.

Bernie McGregor, head of Win International, said the contract with Elmira was invalid because the Spanish-speaking Marti couldn't understand a document written in English. Even if the contract were valid, McGregor argued, Marti couldn't possibly play for Shreveport because he didn't have a U.S. work permit.

McGregor said Marti's work permit came through just days before June's draft. He didn't want to discuss how Marti was able to play in Elmira the previous season.

The Cardinals eventually bypassed Flori and gave the American Association the more traditional sum of $3,000 for Marti's rights.

"I'm upset," Flori said. "We had him. Why wasn't he allowed to come play for us? They never talked to me."

Becomig A Minor League Prospect

Marti eagerly and confidently awaited draft day. The Cardinals selected the outfielder in the 18th round, sending fans and bloggers into a Google-induced frenzy in search of any information on their mystery man.

"One member of the organization says he hits like Pedro Guerrero. This is a fun and fascinating choice," Bernie's Pressbox noted.

Viva El Birdos launched an online poll asking how long it will take Marti to join the big club. More than 150 fans have voted, with a consensus believing Marti will become Albert Pujols' teammate no late than 2007.

Cardinals vice president and director of player procurement Jeff Luhnow further fueled expectations when he was quoted on the Cardinals Web site saying, "I think (Marti's) one of the strongest baseball players I've ever seen. You look at his arms, you look at his legs, this guy is incredibly strong. He has bat speed that you can't teach."

Marti wasted little time signing a contract. Less than a week after being drafted, the Cardinals injected their newest 2006 minor league baseball prospect into the middle of Palm Beach's Florida State League first-half pennant chase.

In his second at bat, the man nobody knew hit the ball off the roof of the Florida Marlin's clubhouse, a spot that hadn't been approached since the big leaguers flew north to start the season.

"I felt pretty good," said Marti, smiling again now that the conversation has returned to baseball. "I feel better and better every time I go out there."

In the weeks that followed, Marti smoked a ball that cleared the centerfield batter's eye in Daytona and revisited the Marlins clubhouse. His at bats became must-see Marti.

Marti smashed four home runs and drove in 16 in 20 games with Palm Beach before his promotion, cementing his status as one of the Cardinals most intriguing minor league prospects in 2006.

The Cuban defector made a strong first impression with Springfield. His plane arrived late, but Marti entered as a pinch hitter and drove in the game-tying run.

If Marti continues to hit, the former Cuban baseball star may quickly turn from 2006 St. Louis Cardinals minor league prospect into a 2006 late-summer call-up.

Check out my blog for more on the St. Louis Cardinals and Minor League Baseball.

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