- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

On Tuesday, baseball began promotion of its latest crown jewel — the World Baseball Classic — in the backyard of its festering wound, the District.

So I asked Major League Baseball president Bob DuPuy whether Washington would be included in this international tournament. He laughed because, after all, he was at the residence of the Japanese ambassador at the time, enjoying the protection of that country’s diplomatic immunity.

“I think it is very important that we have Major League Baseball in Washington, D.C.,” DuPuy said.

As important as having Fidel Castro’s baseball team play in the United States in the World Baseball Classic? That seemed to be one of the main topics of conversation Tuesday night at the embassy, where the home run kings of two nations — Hank Aaron and Sadaharu Oh — made promotional appearances for the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Baseball has been working hard behind the scenes to get permission for the Cuban national team to play in the tournament. Last month the Treasury Department denied baseball’s application for Cuba to play its scheduled first-round games in Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory. Later rounds are scheduled to take place in California.

The license is required because of American sanctions against Cuba aimed at preventing Castro’s government from receiving U.S. currency. Cuba officials have said they will donate any money received to victims of Hurricane Katrina, so baseball applied for the license again.

“We hope that the state department comes through,” DuPuy said. “We would be disappointed if Cuba didn’t play.”

The tournament stands a chance of falling apart if Cuba doesn’t play. Puerto Rico has threatened to pull out as a host, and the International Baseball Federation, the world governing organization for the sport, has said it would withdraw its sanctioning from the tournament.

“I hope those players in Cuba will have a chance to compete in it,” Aaron said. “I hope politics don’t get involved in this thing like it does everything else.”

But there can be no inclusion or exclusion of politics concerning Cuba.

The United States is seen as pushing politics by refusing to grant Cuba a license to participate. But if Cuba gets permission, then Castro’s politics come into play, and why doesn’t that outrage those clamoring for Cuba to play? Where is the outrage over Cuban defectors like brothers Livan and Orlando Hernandez not being able to play for their country because Castro won’t allow it? No other country has that sort of restriction on its natives, but in Cuba those politics seem to be OK.

“Since it is named the World Baseball Classic, I would like to see Cuba, too,” Oh said through a translator. “But I don’t know much about the details of the politics.”

DuPuy could say the same thing about the District.

“We need to find a way to get the council to honor the commitment the city made and get a stadium built,” he said when asked about the ongoing battle between baseball and council members over money for a new ballpark.

“I am optimistic that we can find a way to get it done.

“We have a process described by the contract involving mediation and arbitration,” DuPuy added. “We would need to proceed with that process. But that doesn’t move the ball forward with the economic development that the mayor and the council have talked about and that the mayor has worked so hard to promote. It doesn’t move the ball forward in terms of selling the team and getting it in the hands of new owners with strong local community ties who can help foster that economic development, and it really is wasteful to not get it done and not move the process forward.”

It may have been telling that DuPuy went out of his way to say baseball needed to get the team in the hands of new owners “with strong local community ties.” The consensus opinion is that the Washington Baseball Club, with financier Fred Malek, is the group with the strongest local ties.

So I asked Tom Schieffer, American ambassador to Japan, whether he had been following the Washington baseball issue. He was a partner with President Bush when the latter owned the Texas Rangers — which helped Schieffer land the job in Japan.

“If it hadn’t been for baseball, I probably would not be standing here,” Schieffer said with a smile, addressing the crowd at the embassy.

He also was partners with Malek, who had a small piece of the Rangers and is credited with bringing Bush into the deal.

I gave Schieffer an easy opportunity to endorse his old partner when I asked him about Malek.

“I know Fred Malek. I know Jeff Smulyan,” Schieffer responded. “There are a lot of good people involved.”

That seemed a bit strange because I never mentioned Smulyan.

This international baseball tournament is scheduled to begin March 3. The Cuban political issue certainly will have been resolved by then. But if the District political issue is not, the question of Washington being part of the World Baseball Classic is not so funny anymore.

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