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Cognac-toting models mingled with baseball superstars in the Biltmore Hotel's gilded ballroom last week, but as Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez made the rounds, Spanish-language TV reporters wanted to talk about anything but the Hennessy-sponsored drink in his hand.
Hours earlier, the Yankees legend had been accused of swindling the City of Hialeah out of thousands of dollars and depriving downtrodden children of access to a public park. But El Duque came out slinging fastballs at his critics.
"This is all politics," Hernandez told Riptide. "People are attacking me and my school in order to tarnish [Mayor] Carlos Hernandez, a person who is doing good things for the city. But they aren't going to succeed."
The controversy centers on Babcock Park in Hialeah. In August 2011, newly minted mayor Carlos Hernandez signed a contract awarding control of the park's seven baseball fields to El Duke Sports Association LLC.
El Duque's company quickly encircled the fields with padlocked fences and began hosting three-day tournaments costing $300 to $500 per team. Some locals were irked by the overnight privatization. José Azze, a former Hialeah Parks and Rec official, started asking for records of the city's dealings with El Duque. Azze began attending city council meetings to demand answers.
Hours before the glitzy Biltmore party, Azze held his own event: a news conference announcing he had officially filed a complaint against El Duque with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust. Azze told Riptide that privatizing public parks is nothing new, but El Duque had thrown the city a serious curve ball.
"Usually someone gets 50 percent of the profit" when a park is privatized, Azze said. "In this case, it was very unusual because we did all the maintenance, we gave him all the fields, we paid for all of the lights, and they kept 100 percent of the profits."
Azze also claimed El Duque had broken the terms of the contract by not handing over an estimated $30,000 in concession money.
But El Duque didn't dodge the question when Riptide cornered him at the party. Instead, he came out bringing heat, even suggesting his critics were on drugs.
"It's all politics," he said. "They want to use the school to slander someone. But we are happy with what we're doing. No TV station has bothered to interview the parents of even one of our students to see how they feel about it."
He adds, "When we came to that park, people were smoking marijuana wherever they liked... And now we've eliminated that from the park. I think that, perhaps, those are the people who are against us being in control of the park."
The Cuban-born ballplayer capped his comments with a shot at critics before grabbing a glass of the good stuff and mingling with the crowd.
"I always say, 'He who doesn't know how to dance blames the dance floor,' " he quipped. "Thank you. Now we're going to enjoy some Hennessy."