The Baltimore Orioles refuse to sign players who defect from Cuba, saying they believe it is bad for relations between the United States and the communist country.
The Orioles are the only team in Major League Baseball with such a policy, which stems from a historic, two-game series between the Orioles and the Cuban national team that took place last spring in Havana and at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
That trip, initiated by Orioles owner Peter Angelos, was the first appearance of a major league team in Cuba since 1959 and infuriated many Cuban-Americans.
“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 as being disrespectful or … encouraging players to defect,” said Syd Thrift, the club’s vice president for baseball operations.
Cuba has dominated international baseball for 30 years, and the island is considered the last untapped source of baseball talent.
About two dozen players have defected in the ‘90s; some, such as Livan Hernandez of the San Francisco Giants and his half brother Orlando of the New York Yankees, have become stars.
Most of the defectors, like the Hernandez brothers, have been pitchers. There has been a desperate shortage of good pitchers on major league teams in recent seasons, and the Orioles have been no exception. This season, the earned run average of the team’s pitching staff is 6.03, the worst in the American League.
Despite their need of good arms, the Orioles declined to pursue a pair of top pitchers who defected from Cuba in the past year, even though both drew the interest of most major league teams.
In January, Adrian Hernandez no relation to Livan and Orlando used forged documents to leave Havana on a commercial airliner. Hernandez signed with the Yankees this season and has been strong in his two appearances in the team’s extended spring training. He was on the roster of the Cuban national team that came to Camden Yards but was not allowed to make the trip because officials feared he would defect.
Danys Baez, who walked away from the Cuban national team at the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg last summer, signed with the Orioles’ American League rival, the Cleveland Indians.
The Orioles’ policy also has had a political dimension.
Angelos contributes heavily to Democratic candidates and organizations. Since 1995, he has given $1.215 million to Democrats and $1,000 to Republicans, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The team’s trip to Cuba occurred at a time the Clinton administration, which has sought to normalize relations with dictator Fidel Castro, loosened restrictions on U.S. trade and commerce with Cuba. The administration granted Angelos the waiver necessary for the Orioles to go to Cuba.
Angelos met with Castro in Havana in the days before the game. The pair sat together in the stands behind home plate, where along with an invitation-only crowd, they watched the two teams play.
“More major league teams will be coming here, and more Cuban teams will be coming to the United States and that has been the whole purpose of this,” Angelos said at the time.
Angelos no longer speaks to the media about baseball issues, referring all questions to his son, John, an Orioles vice president. John Angelos did not return phone calls.
The Orioles’ stance appears to be a change for Peter Angelos, a Baltimore-based attorney who is considered to be one of the best litigation lawyers in the country.
When the Orioles first announced their intention to go to Cuba, Angelos said it was to scout players.
The trip “is for the purposes of observing the Cuban baseball players, who are among the best, if not the best in the Central America areas,” Angelos said.
Said Thrift: “Before the trip, yes, we scouted and were interested in some of them.”
Thrift also said economics plays a part in the club’s decision not to pursue defectors. “A lot of times, you’re paying a lot of money for a player you haven’t seen play too much,” he said. “Sometimes you overpay.”
The Orioles’ $83 million payroll this year is again among the highest in baseball. Large salaries have not resulted in success: The club has been below .500 the past two seasons and was 16-21 this season and in next-to-last place in the AL East division before last night’s game with the Angels at Anaheim, Calif.