George González grew up playing ball with his siblings on the baseball fields of Benny Babcock Park, Hialeah’s oldest and most popular park.
However, the 16-year-old student laments the fact that other kids in his neighborhood no longer have the same opportunity because they lack the more than $300 to register in the private academy of former Major League pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernández. The academy has fenced in all seven diamonds in the park.
"The situation is infuriating," González said. "The park now belongs to the people who have money. Today, more than ever, you see fewer neighborhood kids in that park because what this did was to distance them from the ball games."
Like González, several Babcock Park neighbors and Hialeah activists have expressed their displeasure over the privatization of the park, which two years ago was leased to El Duke Sports Association, LLC, owned by El Duque.
The lease is up for renewal later this month.
In August 2011, Mayor Carlos Hernández signed a contract that granted the use of the playing fields to El Duque so he could start his academy. When the academy is not operating, the park’s fields are shut down, with chains and padlocks.
"If we feel that this is something positive for the community, we’ll renew the contract," Mayor Hernández said. "There will always be a tiny group that, for political or personal reasons, are against any changes, against anything, but you need to see the big investment and service that the league has given us so far."
Last week, a representative of the academy said he could not respond to reporters’ questions. El Duque Hernández did not return calls from El Nuevo Herald.
The academy has invested more than $40,000 erecting fences around every field and turning a fronton field into a batting practice area. The only spaces that are fully open to the public in the 18-acre park at 651 E. Fourth Ave. are two basketball courts, a children’s play area and a swimming pool.
The mayor contends that the academy brings great benefit to the community, because the former star pitcher for the Yankees and several other teams is training new generations of baseball players in the park. Not everyone shares that opinion, however. José Azze, a former municipal employee who created the nonprofit group Save Our Youth Hialeah, told El Nuevo Herald that besides excluding the community by fencing the fields, the academy is using public funds to maintain them.
"It is incredible that the public can’t use those fields," Azze said. "We citizens of Hialeah are paying 100 percent of the cost of the park’s maintenance and lighting, ever though it has been leased to a private enterprise."
Azze said that all the profits generated by the academy go into its own coffers. When the city was in charge of the park, the children paid $85 to play during one season, he said. But when the academy took over, the registration skyrocketed to $300.
The mayor said that the Khoury League managed the fields at Babcock for years and charged for admission to the games.
In 2000, the park was renovated with a municipal investment of more than $1 million.
The park "must function again as it did before, when a reasonable price was charged," said Jacob Segurola, who worked as a volunteer in the park for four years.
"Children cannot play ball because they don’t have the money," he said. The city and the lessees "have forgotten that this is neither Coconut Grove nor Coral Gables. This is Hialeah."