Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

And that one is... JUAN GONE!

Goldeyes slugger is king of pop in NL

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JUAN Diaz is having one of the best seasons of his career -- he's the home run king of the Northern League with 23 and there's still 25 games to play.

What that means for the 35-year-old slugger, who is in his first season as the Winnipeg Goldeyes' designated hitter, is maybe another year of baseball. The man who was nicknamed Big Thunder during his brief foray into the majors believes the bigs are finished with him and his focus is on making the best of his days right here.

"There's been some great moments for me, seeing the ball going over the fence. That way I've been helping the team in the games, and I think it's pretty fun to be playing the way that I have been right now," said the 6-foot-4, 298-pound Diaz.

"My first year in the Northern League was pretty good too (2007), I hit .358 with 28 homers. The difference right now is in my average (.311) but it's nothing to worry about when I'm still getting RBIs (66, second in the NL) and homers for the team."

It's obvious Diaz is more concerned about the team than his own numbers -- a special attribute from someone who has made a difficult journey for a life in baseball. He defected from Cuba at age 21 and still gets choked up when he recalls the day he told his mom on the phone, with Cuban officials at her door, that he was not coming home. "I had to say, 'no Mom, I've got this opportunity to play baseball, I have to do it,'" he said, quietly. "It's tough be from a country where you have to leave to play this game and they won't let you do it."

Diaz said he lost his mom last October and wasn't able to get back to Cuba because of passport difficulties.

His journey to North America began with the Los Angeles Dodgers scouting him in Cuba. A story by MLN Sports Zone recounts a tale of the Dodgers coming up with a fake wife to help him defect from Cuba to the Dominican Republic. Diaz said that story has been exaggerated with time -- she was a relative from the Dominican who had come to Cuba for knee surgery and he was able to go to the Dominican Republic two months later to visit. Since he wasn't on Cuba's baseball radar, the government let him go. He just never went back.

The Dodgers signed him, he started playing in their system in 1997 and he showed the big stick right away with 25 home runs. Disaster struck two years later when Major League Baseball fined the Dodgers and voided his contract, suggesting improprieties in obtaining Cuban players. He started over in Boston's system and worked his way up to AAA, where he had back-to-back 20-home-run seasons.

In 2002, the Red Sox brought him on board for four games. In seven at-bats he had a pair of hits, including a home run, and then it was over.

Since then, the Orioles, Twins and Cardinals gave him looks but injuries and immigration problems snuffed out any major-league interest.

Ask Diaz now which country is his home and he laughs, saying he has four -- Cuba, Dominican Republic, the United States and Canada.

"It depends on who the person is who is asking," he said, grinning.

Diaz still has a Cuban passport but has permanent residency status in the U.S., so he no longer has trouble travelling to play ball. He makes his home in Missouri, with his wife of 10 years, Adalgiza, and their three sons.

He hopes to have his U.S. citizenship by 2011. His sons are all U.S. citizens and will all be in school soon, so it's time to put down roots.

Diaz said he and his wife have had plenty of discussions as to when he should retire, but he's not ready yet.

"If we can win a championship here, that would be a good excuse for me to come back. I could say to my wife, everybody's coming back because we won the championship, I need to go for one more year!"

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

Juan's way

WINNIPEG Goldeyes DH Juan Diaz defected from his Cuban homeland in 1996 to make a life in baseball. He's found a new home in the Northern League, where he was the NL all-star DH in 2007 with Joliet and is the 2009 home run leader with 23.

Here's a snapshot of Juan's way:

1996: rookie ball in the Dominican Republic

1997-1998: A and A+ ball in South Atlantic and Florida State leagues

1999-2000: AA ball in Texas and Eastern leagues

2000-2002: AAA ball in the International League (Pawtucket)

2002: four games with the Boston Red Sox

2003-2006: AA in Eastern and Texas leagues, AAA in International and Pacific Coast leagues

2007-2008: independent with NL's Joliet JackHammers

2009: independent with NL's Winnipeg Goldeyes

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 7, 2009 C1

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