Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A group of Cuban major leaguers will meet tomorrow with Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart to discuss forming a team to play in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in March.

Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican and a native of Cuba, declined to identify the players but said they have enough for every position, plus a manager.

“Cuban players have rights, too,” Diaz-Balart said. “They are organizing and want to play together as a team.”

The issue of Cuban players in the tournament — a World Cup-style competition that is being heavily promoted by Major League Baseball and the players union as a historic event — has become a point of contention.

A group of congressmen from South Florida, including Diaz-Balart, successfully lobbied the Bush administration to deny Cuba a permit that would have allowed its national team to play in the United States during the tournament, which will be held March 3-20 in the United States, Puerto Rico and Japan.

Under an edict by Cuban president Fidel Castro, players who have defected from or are of Cuban descent but were born in America cannot play for the Cuban team in the World Baseball Classic. Diaz-Balart said that policy is unfair to those players, and he strongly criticized MLB and the union for supporting Castro’s policy.

“These Cuban players are the only ones in the major and minor leagues who can’t play for their country of origin,” Diaz-Balart said. “The players union, which is supposed to be representing these players, is just following the company line of Major League Baseball, which in turn is doing what Castro wants. That is a sick policy.

“All other national baseball associations want major leaguers to play for their teams,” Diaz-Balart added. “But because Castro says they are nonpersons because they defected or their families left Cuba, now these players have no rights. I think that is ridiculous.”

Washington Nationals pitcher Livan Hernandez is one of a group of major leaguers who defected from Cuba. There was some consideration of him playing for Puerto Rico.

Other Cuban defectors in the majors include Livan’s brother, pitcher Orlando Hernandez, and pitcher Jose Contreras, both members of the World Series champion Chicago White Sox.

It is possible major leaguers of Cuban heritage who were born in the United States — former Baltimore Oriole Rafael Palmeiro is an example — could participate as well.

It is not clear where the rest of the players would come from to field a team.

Organizers hoped the Cuban national team would be in the 16-team field. But the decision by the U.S. Treasury Department, which cited the standing embargo against the communist island nation, puts its participation in doubt. MLB and its players union are working to get that decision reversed.

“We are very disappointed with the government’s decision to deny the participation of a team from Cuba in the World Baseball Classic,” Paul Archey, senior vice president of Major League Baseball International, and Gene Orza, chief operating officer of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said in a joint statement. “We will continue to work within appropriate channels in an attempt to address the government’s concerns and will not announce a replacement unless and until that effort fails.”

One of the problems of organizing a freelance Cuban team is that the World Baseball Classic tournament is not being run by MLB. Instead, it is under the umbrella of the International Baseball Federation and requires entries to be under a particular nation’s flag.

Cuba was scheduled to play its three first-round games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. If the Cubans advanced, they also would play their second-round games in Puerto Rico, which, as a U.S. commonwealth, is subject to its trade laws. The championship will take place at PETCO Park in San Diego on March 20.

Former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, has urged the Bush administration to reverse its decision, saying it will have a negative impact on American cities seeking to hold the Games in the future. Olympic host countries must guarantee all nations can participate.

“It is important to any future bid city from the United States that this be reversed,” Ueberroth told the Associated Press. “It’s disappointing. This will impact IOC members negatively. This may be the only example of a country prohibiting competition on an international scale.”

The last time a Cuban baseball team played in the United States was at Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1999. The Orioles traveled to Havana to play in March, then played host to the Cuban team two months later.

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