|Monday, November 11
Selig plays political hardball on baseball's Cuban crisis
By Tom Farrey
Comments by Bud Selig about the availability of Cuban defector Jose Contreras to major-league teams has led to criticism from special-interest groups that baseball's commissioner is appeasing Fidel Castro, who regards the loss of the island's top players as a hit to Cuba's national pride.
"Obviously, in the Dominican situation, or in Japan, those are situations where the country is happy to let them go and obviously we're happy to have them," Selig said. "Cuba has been a difficult situation. I'm going to have to let the people in Washington solve that problem."
The commissioner's office argues that the U.S. embargo against Cuba prevents the league from allowing Cuban defectors who live in the U.S. from being treated as free agents. The U.S. embargo prohibits Americans from doing business with Cuba, with the goal of cutting off the flow of funds to the communist government.
The policy could prevent a winter bidding war for Contreras, a right-handed pitcher regarded by some scouts as the best Cuban defector ever. If forced into the draft, Contreras, 30, might not be available to teams such as the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers and other clubs that are reportedly interested in him.
Major League Baseball has had to defend its policy in the past on Cuban defectors, most recently last year after pitcher Rolando Viera left the island. But Selig's rationale for the policy renewed concerns among some groups who regard his comments as evidence of a cozy relationship between baseball and the Cuban government.
"It proves our critique correct, that the reason baseball maintains this policy is to conform to the wishes of Fidel Castro," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a public-interest legal group in Washington, D.C.
Judicial Watch was one of the groups that two years ago urged a federal investigation into the stance of the Baltimore Orioles toward Cuban defectors. After the Orioles had played a home-and-home exhibition series with a team of Cuban all-stars, Syd Thrift, the team's vice president for baseball operations, was quoted as saying the team would not sign Cubans because owner Peter Angelos didn't want to "do anything that could be interpreted as being disrespectful or ... encouraging players to defect."
The Department of Justice opened an investigation. The Orioles backed away from their stance, and the Department of Justice dropped the case.
Fitton said baseball should be sanctioned for Selig's comments and forced to abandon its Cuban policy, which some contend is in violation of federal civil-rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on national origin.
"We're going to examine our legal options," he said. "We're certainly going to demand that the (Bush) administration, the Department of Justice and any other relevant agencies take action."
Baseball contends that it does not discriminate against Cuban players, most of whom have acquired paperwork as legal residents in other Central American countries in order to avoid the draft.
Alou, the Chicago Cubs outfielder, graduated from high school in the Dominican Republic but went to college in California. He was placed in the 1986 draft, and the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him in the first round as the second overall pick.
Most Dominicans, like Alou's teammate Sammy Sosa, are signed as free agents because they were living in their home country at the time.
Coonelly denied that Selig is trying to appease Castro, who had to approve the historic exhibition with the Orioles that brought a major-league team to Cuba for the first time since he seized control of the country in 1959. Castro, Selig and Angelos sat together at the game, which was dominated by Contreras.
"He was a very impressive pitcher," Selig said.
The Orioles won, 3-2. But Contreras, coming on in relief, struck out 10 and allowed two hits and no runs in eight innings. Selig said he and Castro discussed American and Cuban baseball at length during the visit, but did not talk about Contreras' future which Selig sensed was an "inappropriate subject."
"If Congress changes the law and allows U.S. entities to do business with Cuba, then major-league clubs will be able to sign Cuban residents and will gladly do so," Coonelly said. "Until Congress changes the law, Contreras cannot be signed as a resident of Cuba."
Baseball agents and lawyers for defectors say the commissioner's office is using the embargo as an excuse to prevent the wealthiest teams from bidding on Cubans, and driving up salaries.
Viera and his agent, Joe Kehoskie, sued baseball in federal court over the policy but stopped pursuing the lawsuit this summer after losing a preliminary ruling. Viera is now in the Red Sox farm system, after being drafted in the seventh round last year. He signed a minor-league contract with a $175,000 signing bonus, but is no longer represented by Kehoskie.
Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington-based policy group, said baseball's policy is discriminatory because civil rights laws prohibit teams from treating people differently based on national origin.
"Why does Selig care whether Castro is happy or not? I don't understand that," said Clegg, a former lawyer in the civil-rights division of the Department of Justice during the Reagan and first Bush administrations.
"To say that Fidel Castro might be upset, that feeds into the pipe dream these guys have -- that someday we'll normalize relations with Cuba" and Castro will make his players available without them having to defect, said Dennis K. Hays, executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, a conservative lobbying group founded by Cuban exiles. "But Castro's not interested in that."
Contreras has not yet applied to be a free agent, Coonelly said. However, the pitcher, who was paroled into the U.S. after defecting at a tournament in Mexico, is expected to do so if his agent can find a foreign country that will accept him as a legal resident.
Jaime Torres, the player's agent and attorney, said he is unlikely to pursue legal action against baseball to get his client declared a free agent because of the time it could take to resolve such a matter.
Gene Orza, associate general counsel of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said the union would have no grounds for a grievance unless Contreras obtained residency in a foreign country and baseball still declined to grant him free agency.
ESPN producer Willie Weinbaum contributed to this report