Baseball's big hitters queue up to sign Cuban exile

At the end of last year Orlando Hernandez escaped to the Bahamas from Cuba by raft. Phil Davison, Latin America Correspondent, tells why he may now become a multi-millionaire while many of his friends on the raft will be struggling in dead-end jobs.

Pitching for the Cuban national team, Orlando Hernandez earned only pounds 3 a week. But he was the best on the island, placing him among the top pitchers in the world, so everyone called him el Duque (the Duke).

Then he got blacklisted by Fidel Castro after his half-brother defected. So Hernandez got on a leaky raft last December. Yesterday, he got his first chance to show what most believe - that he will soon be earning several million a year. But not everyone will be happy for him.

Dozens of scouts, mostly from US Major League teams, showed up at the stadium in Costa Rica, to watch the Duke throw for the first time "on free soil". Rarely was one man's arm so intensely observed. Is it, as many predict, worth several million a year? If so, there will be many who begrudge him his success. His special treatment by the US has upset many Cuban exiles.

The Duke hit the headlines soon after his half-brother, Livan Hernandez, who defected from Cuba in 1995 and signed up for the Florida Marlins for an estimated pounds 4m, won the game's highest award last year, the World Series, and the title Most Valuable Player.

Livan told newsmen that his half-brother was an even better pitcher. When Orlando and seven friends finally arrived in the Bahamas after a 10-hour overnight raft ride, one of Florida's top agents, Cuban-American Joe Cubas was waiting.

With baseball fans still talking about Livan's rags-to-riches tale, the US State Department quickly granted visas to the Duke, his partner Noris Bosh and his catcher Alberto Hernandez (no relation). The other five rafters would have to remain in a Bahamian detention centre until being returned to Cuba, it ruled.

The US reasoning was that the two baseball players represented cases "of special public benefit" while Ms Bosch's acceptance would be "humanitarian". No one doubted that a big baseball contract had influenced Washington.

Many Cuban immigrants were furious at the discrimination against the other five rafters, not to mention hundreds of others sent back to Cuba over the last two years.

Apparently heeding the criticism, the Duke declined his US visa, saying he wanted equal treatment for his seven fellow-rafters. Instead, with special permission from the Bahamas, all left together for Costa Rica last month.

A fine gesture by the Duke. As it happens, by going to Costa Rica he avoided the US baseball draft, a system which would assign him a specific team, and won the chance to negotiate with all the big boys.

And so yesterday, the Duke and his catcher strutted their stuff. But not all their fellow rafters showed up. While the baseball players will eventually earn millions, the others were yesterday looking for menial jobs. And the word was not yet in on the value of that arm.