BALTIMORE Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos continues to come under fire for his club’s controversial refusal to sign players who have defected from Cuba.
In a strongly worded letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, powerful Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, called Thursday for the Justice Department to investigate whether the Orioles are guilty of discriminatory hiring practices.
The club’s refusal to pursue Cuban defectors was first reported by The Washington Times last week. That story quoted Syd Thrift, club vice president for baseball operations, as saying the Orioles do not pursue Cubans because Angelos feels it would adversely affect the good will created by the Orioles’ home-and-home series with the Cuban national team last year.
Angelos, one of the nation’s premier litigation lawyers, since has denied the policy, but sources in both the Orioles’ business and baseball operations confirmed that the owner doesn’t want the team signing defectors.
Last week Angelos’ position drew sharp criticism from Republican Party chairman Jim Nicholson, who compared the stance with discouraging Jews from fleeing Nazi Germany. Angelos is unpopular with Republicans because he has donated more than $1.2 million to Democratic campaigns in recent years.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig defended Angelos earlier this week and said when the Orioles visited Cuba last year, dictator Fidel Castro never asked Angelos not to pursue defectors.
“I was there the whole weekend and spent a lot of time with them together and the answer is no,” Selig said of whether Castro had made such a request. “Some clubs have been very aggressive in signing Cuban players, but each club has to do what they think is right.”
In his letter, Helms said the Orioles’ position “would appear to be illegal” and asked Reno to “initiate an immediate review of the hiring practices of the Orioles through the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices and all other appropriate channels to determine whether or not they are, in fact, implementing a policy of not hiring Cuban defectors.”
An official in Reno’s office confirmed receiving the letter and said Helms’ request would be reviewed.
According to lawyers contacted by The Times earlier this week, the Orioles appear to be in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
“It certainly looks like a claim could be made under Title VII,” said Tom Coleman, a labor and employment lawyer with Williams, Mullen, Clark and Dobbin, a District-based law firm. “To develop any kind of policy that makes nationality a defining factor in hiring practice would be in violation.”
Helms apparently agrees, writing Reno, “Would [the Orioles’ policy] not also be a violation of the provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which provides legal aliens with explicit protections against discriminatory hiring practices?” he wrote to Reno.
Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka, who last week confirmed the Orioles’ stance, did an about-face Thursday.
“As stated by our owner, there is no policy in regard to the hiring of Cuban ballplayers,” he said. “It’s a lot about nothing.”
The Orioles’ actions appear to dispute their claims of innocence. According to agents for Cuban players who have tried to pursue a pro career in the United States since the Orioles announced they were going to Cuba last year, the club has made no attempt to sign them.
Pitcher Danys Baez walked away from the Cuban national team last August but when he auditioned for scouts last fall, the Orioles were one of three teams who failed to attend. The others were small-market clubs Milwaukee and Montreal, according to Mike Maulini, an associate of agent Joe Cubas, who represents Baez and several other Cuban players.
There have been a lot of players who have had showcases in the past year and the Orioles are the only team to never attend one of them,” said Maulini.
Baez signed with Cleveland, pitcher Adrian Fernandez with the New York Yankees and infielders Jorge Diaz and Osmani Garcia with Texas.
Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this report.