Would you like some controversy with your cognac?
Last night's celebrity-filled soirée at the Biltmore Hotel -- hosted by Hennessy in honor of Roberto Clemente -- took a strange twist when talk turned from the booze to a simmering baseball controversy in Hialeah. Accused earlier in the day of swindling the city out of thousands of dollars and depriving downtrodden kids of access to a public park, former Yankee pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernández insisted he had done nothing wrong.
"This is all politics," Hernández 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 of 2011, newly minted mayor Carlos Hernández signed a contract awarding total control of the park's seven baseball fields to El Duke Sports Association, LLC.
El Duque's company quickly encircled the fields with fences and padlocks, and began hosting tournaments costing between $300 and $500 per team.
Some locals were irked by the overnight privatization of the city's main baseball park. José Azze, a former Hialeah Parks & Rec official, began asking for records of the city's dealings with El Duque. He began attending city council meetings to demand answers.
Yesterday, just hours before the glitzy Biltmore party, Azze held his own event: a press conference announcing that 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 curveball.
"Usually someone gets 50 percent of the profit" when a park is privatized, Azze said. "Usually someone has to do the work or there is always a give and take. But 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 ... The price is very high for our community."
Azze blamed the bad deal on the city's star-struck mayor, Carlos Hernández.
"The guy was a professional famous baseball player," he said. "Obviously it gives the mayor clout that he brought in a big name." (The mayor's office did not respond to a request for comment.)
Azze also claimed El Duque had broken the terms of the contract by not handing over an estimated $30,000 in concession money. Nor had El Duque obtained permits for his highly lucrative tournaments. Most importantly, privatizing the fields had locked out Hialeah's poor pelters and eliminated space for other sports like soccer and football, Azze said.
But El Duque didn't dodge the question when asked about the park at the Hennessy party. Instead, he came out slinging fastballs, even suggesting that 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. Those are who you need to interview, not the detractors that are in the streets talking, and talking and talking. They are just playing politics instead of speaking to those who are benefitting from the school.
"Believe me, I'm not making myself a millionaire like people are saying," he continued. "No one is becoming a millionaire off of this. No. You have to remember that for years, we never had a delegation from Panama, Venezuela, Nicaragua, or many other countries -- even the Bahamas -- ever come to Hialeah. Now they are coming here and spending their money in Hialeah. They have contributed to Hialeah. So what are we talking about? What are we complaining about? But people don't talk about those things because it isn't convenient."
"When we came to that park, people were smoking marijuana wherever they liked," he said. "It was practically [abandoned]. And now we've eliminated that from the park. I think that, perhaps, those are the people that are against us being in control of the park. Now, thank God, people can walk peacefully through the park until 10 p.m. any day."
"You can come to the park and interview the parents of the kids," Hernández said. "In fact, the parents have given a great response to the Commission of Hialeah. Nobody bought them off."
"We're going to be there as long as the mayor wants," he said defiantly. "And at the end of the day, the ones who will determine what happens are the kids, because are the reason we're doing this."
The Cuban-born ballplayer capped his comments with a shot at his critics, before grabbing a glass of cognac and mingling with the crowd.
"I always say: 'He who doesn't know how to dance blames the dance floor,'" he said. "Thank you, now we're going to enjoy some Hennessy."
But Clemente's ghost hung over the event. Pictures of the Puerto Rican right fielder stared out from every corner, as if asking: What would he do about Babcock Park? Would the Hall of Famer, who died in a plane crash while bringing supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, charge kids $300 to play ball?
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Clemente's reputation -- on and off the field -- is beyond reproach.
El Duque's own legacy, however, is very much up for debate.