Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Lasorda Hopes Cuba Makes it to World Baseball Classic

Staff writer

Cuba's exclusion from the World Baseball Classic would be tragic, and no one knows it more than WBC ambassador Tommy Lasorda.

On hand for both Cuban revolutions in the 1950s, Lasorda has met Cuban ruler Fidel Castro, he played in Cuba and later coached the United States to an upset of Cuba at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Knowing what international competition can mean, Lasorda said the WBC will go on to help players, coaches and fans worldwide build the kind of memories he and his team of then-unknown minor leaguers did in their upset of Cuba in 2000.

Cuba dominated the international baseball scene leading up to the Sydney Olympics, having won gold at the previous two Olympics and taking top honors at the Baseball World Cup the previous six times (a streak that now stands at nine).

"They told me we could not beat the Cubans, and I wanted to coach that team just so we could go down there and bring the gold medal back to the United States," Lasorda said in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Lasorda played winter ball in Cuba in 1952 and 1959, the years when Fulgencio Batista and Castro came into power, respectively.

"When Castro came into power, they called a general strike, and nothing moved for nine days," Lasorda said. "We were playing ball when the battle was going on, but after Castro took over, he wanted to see me."

Lasorda and a baseball scout met Castro at the Hilton in Havana.

"We met with him for two hours, and we talked about everything," Lasorda said. "He seldom laughed, that was one thing I noticed. He did not have much of a sense of humor. But he was a good fan of baseball, and he loved to talk about it."

Lasorda has a better perspective on Cuban baseball than most foreigners, and Cuba's participation in the WBC is vital, he said.

Cuba, which won the gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics and is the champion of every International Baseball Federation competition at senior and junior levels, is in danger of not being able to play in the WBC, and now the Classic is in danger of having its IBAF sanctioning revoked, which likely would leave the tournament dead in the water.

Because of America's longstanding embargo against Cuba, the U.S. Treasury Department denied Cuba permission to participate in the tournament, which would see the Cubans play in Puerto Rico and possibly in California for later rounds.

Major League Baseball, which sponsors the WBC, reapplied for permission to have Cuba in the WBC after Castro pledged to donate the proceeds to Hurricane Katrina survivors.

MLB spokesman Pat Courtney said the new decision could come any day but was anticipated before Jan. 17, the deadline for WBC 60-man rosters.

Lasorda only hopes the Cubans are allowed into the WBC, and MLB is very confident Cuba will be given permission now that the economic concerns have been addressed.

The Cuba situation is the last thing officials wanted to face leading up to the inaugural WBC, but Lasorda is convinced the tournament will make a strong debut and solidify itself on the international scene.

The WBC will become even more important after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which is the last Olympics that will have baseball unless the International Olympic Committee votes to reinstate it.

Along with softball, baseball was removed from the list of Olympic sports in July 2005, and the earliest it could return would be for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

With the WBC being played every three years, that would leave it solely as the international baseball community's flagship event for a minimum of eight years.

"I think taking away baseball and girls' softball was terrible," Lasorda said. "All of our games, the park was full. When we went to watch our softball team play, the
park was full. All countries are starting to play baseball. We need to get it back."

MLB Japan Managing Director Jim Small said the most important thing for Olympic baseball was understanding that it could peacefully coexist with the WBC.

"The two tournaments are not mutually exclusive," Small said. "You can have the Olympics and the WBC, as you have seen with basketball and the FIBA championships and with soccer and the World Cup. We think they can work in tandem, and we are doing everything short of actually committing major league players to help return baseball to the Olympics."

The Japan Times: Jan. 11, 2006

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