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Cuban Baseball Players Seek Asylum

March 24, 1998

NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) _ After a daring escape from their communist homeland, four Cuban baseball players appealed for asylum, freedom _ and the prospect of Major League riches _ by seeking refuge in Costa Rica.

Condemning their ``unjust detention″ in a Bahamas refugee camp, the four Cuban players and five friends asked for humanitarian visas in a letter Monday to Costa Rican President Jose Maria Figueres.

``Our fear is that we will be deported back to Cuba where we know that, simply for being baseball players who have decided to abandon the country, we can expect grave consequences,″ they said.

Angel Lopez, 25; Jorge Luis Toca, 23; Jorge Diaz, 23; and Michael Jova, a 17-year-old junior Olympics player, left Cuba by boat Friday. Along with pitching coach Enrique Chinea, 41, and four friends, they encountered a Bahamian fishing boat Saturday and were turned over to Bahamian authorities.

The players were banned from baseball in Cuba last year because authorities suspected they planned to defect.

Their letter was given to a reporter by Cuban-American sports agent Joe Cubas, driving force behind an international effort on the players’ behalf.

By going to Costa Rica, the players could become eligible for free agency. If they settle in the United States, they could be subject to a draft by Major League clubs _ and potentially less lucrative contracts.

On March 6, former Cuban baseball star Orlando Hernandez agreed to $6.6 million contract with the New York Yankees.

Hernandez, 28, had fled Cuba with seven others by boat, was briefly detained in the Bahamas and, with Joe Cubas’ help, obtained asylum in Costa Rica. The United States refused visas to most others in his group.

Hernandez’s half-brother, Livan, also found success in the United States. After defecting, he agreed to a $4.5 million four-year contract with the Florida Marlins and went on to become the Most Valuable Player of the World Series last year.

``I want to leave here. I would prefer to go to Costa Rica and then the United States,″ Angel Lopez said Monday. Asked if he hoped for Orlando Hernandez’s success as a free agent, he responded, ``Of course.″

Rene Guim, spokesman for sports agent Cubas, said efforts were under way to secure humanitarian visas for the nine Cubans.

More than 100 Cuban men and women at the Bahamas refugee camp began a hunger strike Monday to demand they be given the same treatment as the ball players.

Camp director Arthur Rolle said he had brought in more officers to increase security at the camp, where there have been occasional riots.

``We are happy because they (the ball players) have saved their lives. The problem is that we Cubans here want to have the same opportunities as our brothers who play baseball,″ said Lazaro Santana, a spokesman for the refugees.

The ball players told The Associated Press they were getting no special treatment.

``Conditions at the camp are bad: bad provisions, bad food. I don’t have a bed to sleep in,″ Lopez said.

The camp now holds 136 Cubans, as well as about 100 Haitians and a couple dozen Chinese.

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