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Foreign Player Benched by City : Baseball: Star outfielder and exchange student at Birmingham High is ruled ineligible following illegal recruiting charges. Braves also placed on probation for one year.

October 20, 1995|MICHAEL LAZARUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — Fernando Centeno, an All-City Section outfielder for Birmingham High as a junior last year, was declared ineligible Thursday by the City Section Rules Committee.

Centeno, an exchange student from Ecuador, will be ineligible for one year, effectively ending his high school career.

City Section Commissioner Barbara Fiege also placed the entire Birmingham athletic program on probation for one calendar year, effective immediately.

The committee ruled that Centeno was recruited to play baseball by Jose Freire, the boys' soccer and girls' softball coach at Birmingham.

"We found there were recruitment violations and enrollment irregularities," Fiege said. "We received a complaint last spring, but it took us a while to sort everything out."

Freire brought Centeno and another exchange student, pitcher Andres Ycaza, from Ecuador to California last January. Centeno lives with Freire's family in Granada Hills.

Freire, a native of Ecuador and a friend of Centeno's family, said he brought Centeno to Birmingham at the family's request to provide him with an American education and a chance to earn a college scholarship.

"If I were to spend time and energy to try and, as they say, recruit someone, why wouldn't I do it for soccer? After all, I'm the soccer coach," Freire said. "I really don't understand what they are thinking."

This wasn't the first time exchange students from Ecuador have played for Birmingham. Freire served as host to two players in 1989 without incident.

Centeno was named to The Times' All-Valley second team last season after batting .429 with a region-leading 13 doubles. The Braves reached the City 4-A Division playoffs and finished 15-12.

Centeno had an impressive American Legion season, hitting .539. He drew the interest of several colleges and professional scouts and was one of 16 area players invited to the Area Code games in August.

Now, Centeno is unsure whether he wants to stay at Birmingham or return to Ecuador.

"I'm very disappointed," Centeno said. "I wanted a chance to play baseball, to study and to get a scholarship. Now, I don't know what will happen."

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