- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2001

The Justice Department will not seek discrimination charges against the Baltimore Orioles following a 13-month investigation into the club's hiring practices.

The Orioles were investigated for possible discrimination against Cuban defectors as a sympathetic gesture toward Cuban president Fidel Castro. Investigators found that the club has several Cuban employees and has attended at least two talent showcases featuring Cuban defectors.

The club drew scrutiny from numerous private- and public-sector groups last year when general manager Syd Thrift told The Washington Times of the team's anti-Cuban defector policy, created after the team's two-game preseason series in 1999 against the Cuban national team. Such a stance was unprecedented in American professional sports.

"It's not really a policy, as much as a philosophy against doing it," Thrift told The Times in May 2000. "After the good will created between the two countries by the visit, we Mr. Angelos in particular feel it best to not do anything that could be interpreted [by Cuba] as being disrespectful, or … encouraging players," to defect.

Owner Peter Angelos denied the existence of such a policy, but several Orioles front-office executives confirmed the anti-defector stance.

The Times' reports raised the ire of several lawmakers, most notably Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, and prompted probes by the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Both entities have laws explicitly prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of nationality or citizenship status. Major League Baseball also investigated the issue.

The EEOC completed its investigation last September and found no evidence of discrimination. MLB officials, satisfied with the Orioles' current practices, also dropped the issue last year.

After interviews with dozens of Orioles employees, baseball officials and Latin American agents, and a review of club records, the Justice Department reached the same conclusion.

"Our investigation has found no reasonable cause to believe that citizenship status discrimination has occurred," Justice Department special counsel John D. Trasvina wrote to Angelos. "Therefore, [the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration Related Employment Practices] is closing our investigation of this matter."

Although the Orioles never were charged formally with any wrongdoing, the club still does not have any players from Cuba on its major league roster or in its minor league system.

More than two dozen Cuban players, including injured New York Yankees starting pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and Cleveland Indians reliever Danys Baez, have defected in recent years. Until this year, the Orioles were among baseball's biggest spenders on the scouting of players throughout the Caribbean and remain active in doing so but have not signed any Cubans.

"It's kind of a hard thing to prove, really," said Miami-based agent Juan Iglesias, who was interviewed by Justice investigators and whose clients include San Francisco Giants pitcher Livan Hernandez, El Duque's half-brother and also a defector. "The policy exists by not doing anything. [The Orioles are] simply not signing [Cuban] players, but they certainly can't be forced to do so."

The Justice probe found, however, that it was not for lack of effort. Contrary to earlier claims by agents and Angelos' public objections to foreign player showcases, Justice officials say Orioles scouts attended auditions in Costa Rica. According to the officials, the scouts evaluated Orlando Hernandez and Baez there and considered making contract offers to both to least a minor degree.

Hernandez's showcase for scouts was before the Orioles-Cuba series, Baez's after. Both players went on to become impact players in the majors.

"The core allegation was that the Orioles changed their policies following the Cuba series," said a Justice official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We simply found no difference in their activities before and after the series."

The Orioles also employ several Cuban-Americans, most notably batting practice pitcher Rudy Arias.

Angelos did not return repeated calls but issued a statement yesterday in response to the Justice Department decision.

"The Orioles have been scrupulous in our signing of ballplayers, and we will continue to search out the best talent, no matter what a player's origins may be," Angelos said. "I am very pleased that our efforts to open communications between the United States and Cuba through our common love of baseball have been vindicated."

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