A Pitch for Freedom: Instead of Finding Riches on U.S. Baseball Diamonds, Cuban Defectors Find Themselves Limited by Major League Baseball's Policies

By Berlau, John | Insight on the News, June 10, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Pitch for Freedom: Instead of Finding Riches on U.S. Baseball Diamonds, Cuban Defectors Find Themselves Limited by Major League Baseball's Policies


Berlau, John, Insight on the News


Everyone who saw him talked about this pitcher. Scouts, major-league players and fans. He could strike out the best; he had a great curveball; he would be an asset to any big-league team. But because of his national origin, this pitcher faced barriers that prevented him from competing on an even playing field with others aspiring to the major leagues. So the world never found out if he could have been one of the game's greatest talents.

To many familiar with baseball history, the previous paragraph sounds like the story of Hall of Fame pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige or other black players who were barred from the major leagues until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. But it just as easily could be the epitaph of a highly praised pitcher named Rolando Viera unless Major League Baseball (MLB) changes rules that critics say discriminate against him and other players who have escaped from Fidel Castro's Cuba.

The obstacles faced by these players first came to light two years ago when the Baltimore Orioles' vice president for baseball operations, Syd Thrift, told the Washington Times that Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a class-action trial lawyer and big-time Democratic contributor who has hosted an exhibition game with the Cuban national team, would not sign Cuban defectors. "We--Mr. Angelos in particular--feel it is best not to do anything that could be interpreted as being disrespectful or ... encouraging players to defect," Thrift said. Critics charged that the policy was discrimination based on "national origin"--a federal civil-rights violation. At the request of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Janet Reno's Justice Department (DOJ) opened an investigation. Angelos tried to back away, and the DOJ soon dropped the case.

But INSIGHT has learned that baseball's discrimination against those who flee Cuba is not limited to the Orioles but has become part of the hiring policies of MLB. Under baseball rules, Cuban defectors who come to the United States now are the only foreign players not allowed to become free agents. A whole set of barriers has been erected to make it more difficult for Cuban defectors to

advance to the major leagues than for players from any other country.

"They're treated differently from foreign players, and they're treated differently from the domestic players; they're a unique class of player, there's no question about it," says Joe Kehoskie, a sports agent who specializes in representing baseball players from Latin America and who has been interviewed on ESPN as an expert on baseball in Cuba. "Baseball denies it, but it's just like denying that the sun's going to come up tomorrow or the Earth is round. It's just apparent to anybody who looks at it that Cubans are a special class and that rules were made up specifically for them."

One of Kehoskie's former clients is Viera, now a minor-league player who is suing the MLB commissioner under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging unlawful discrimination based upon national origin.

With the Bush administration's recent warnings against Castro's sponsorship of bioterrorism and collaboration with terrorist-sponsoring nations, the case is making waves in the nation's capital. Viera is being represented by Alan Gura, a conservative Washington attorney who was a Republican counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2000 and a deputy attorney general for California in the mid-1990s. Two Bush Cabinet officials who are avid baseball fans expressed strong interest when INSIGHT informed them about the case in May at a minor-league game in which Viera's team was playing. The two officials are Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez, who fled Castro's Cuba as a child, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, chief enforcer of the nation's civil-rights laws. (More on their comments later.)

Gura tells INSIGHT he took Viera's case because it concerns an issue of fundamental fairness. …

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