By Marianela Toledo | Florida Watchdog
MIAMI — What began as a way of to get kids interested in baseball is apparently becoming a political campaign issue.
Complaints about the alleged privatization of publicly owned baseball fields around the city of Hialeah are mounting, but baseball aficionado Dagorberto Acosta said he has yet to see a locked gate at nearby Benny Babcock baseball field.
“I’ve been coming here for four years and the park has always been completely open,” he told Florida Watchdog.” They’ve said a lot of lies and (defamatory remarks) against (El Duque),” former baseball superstar Orlando Hernandez, nicknamed El Duque, or The Duke.
Some neighbors and other groups have said the baseball fields, in publicly funded parks and managed by Hernandez, bar entry to non-paying members.
The issue started in 2011, when Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez inked a deal with the legendary Cuban player, giving Hernandez exclusive rights to operate a for-profit sports academy on public park land.
Hernandez did not respond to our request for an interview.
Since then, neighbors and activists have complained the baseball academy has barred the public from using the park and called the use of the fields discriminatory.
Among them is the nonprofit SoyHialeah.org, whose objective is to improve and preserve recreation programs around the city. The group’s director, Jose Azzy, is a former councilman and director of Parks and Recreation. Azzy was not available for comment, but the group’s website indicated opening the Benny Babcock Park was high on their list of priorities.
According to SoyHialeah’s website, seven sports fields have been privatized and are now in the hands of an entity called El Duque LLC, which charges kids $300 a season to play baseball. In addition, taxpayers continue to foot the bill for the park’s operating costs, yet the company gets to keep 100 percent of the profits.
“The park isn’t closed, but the ball fields are,” said Marcos Miralles, a candidate for council. “The Hialeah residents and taxpayers pay for maintenance of the grass, the power and the bathrooms. The Duke doesn’t have to pay for anything, he just uses the park,” he said.
Miralles said, “We are paying for this park and we can use it. (The Duke) charges $300 and the guys who do not pay can’t use it, even when the field is not in use.”
Florida Watchdog requested, but has yet to receive, a copy of the contract to verify the terms regarding membership policy and the lease agreement with the parks.
Acosta and others who asked to remain anonymous say the park only locks the doors before scheduled games, and this is nothing more than politics.
Miralles, however, says it’s been an issue since 2011, when the partnership between the city and Hernandez began.
He said he wants only to revisit the terms of the agreement to assure they are in the best interests of the public.
But mayoral candidate Juan Santana appears to see the issue as an opportunity to win votes. He videotaped the padlocked doors at the field and used the footage to appeal to voters, promising to take on the fight in exchange for their votes in November.
Contact Marianela Toledo at Marianela.Toledo@FloridaWatchdog.org twitter @mtoledoreporter