Saturday, January 21, 2006

WBC: Behind the Scenes Negotiations

Posted on Fri, Jan. 20, 2006

www.mercurynews.com

Bush will allow Cuba to play in World Baseball Classic

BY OSCAR CORRAL AND PABLO BACHELET
Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - Cuba's powerhouse baseball team got the sign to ``Play Ball!'' after President Bush personally agreed Friday to let the squad take part in the World Baseball Classic, a first-of-its-kind clash of baseball titans from around the globe.

The hitch for Havana: It cannot profit from the event or send too many security guards.

A month ago, the Cubans were told they were not welcome in the United States, where many of the games, including the champion game, will be played. That decision pleased Cuban-American hard-liners, but not Major League Baseball, which sees the 16-team tournament as a showcase event and affirmation of the sport's growing popularity outside the United States.

The Cuban team has not played on American soil since beating the Orioles in an exhibition game at Baltimore's Camden Yards in 1999.

Under the first application for a U.S. Treasury Department license, Cuba would have received some profits from the tournament. The Bush administration has been tightening sanctions on Cuba in recent years to deny resources to the island's communist government.

But on Friday, Treasury reversed its decision after U.S. officials said Bush, a baseball fan and former part-owner of the Texas Rangers, personally agreed to the deal after the limits on money and personnel were imposed.

``The president wanted to see the matter resolved in a positive way,'' said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council. ``Our
concerns were making sure that no money was going to the Castro regime and that the tourney ... would not be misused by the regime as a tool for espionage.''

Treasury worked closely with the State Department and World Baseball Classic Inc., the firm organizing the event, to ``reach a licensable agreement that upholds
both the legal scope and the spirit of the sanctions,'' said Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise.

The deal limits the Cuban team to 30 players and 15 coaches and support staff, said a Bush administration official who requested anonymity to discuss delicate negotiations. An additional 21 people will be allowed to accompany the team, including members of the island's baseball federation, journalists and a small security contingent. All will be vetted to exclude objectionable persons before U.S. visas are issued.

Each Cuban player will be entitled to $100 per day from the tournament organizers, said a congressional aide familiar with the issue. U.S. government officials declined to confirm the number, but one said the license specifies that the Cuban government cannot obtain any money from the games.

Havana officials agreed to the limitations in a contract attached to the license that one official described as ``bulky.'' Cuba earlier had offered to donate any proceeds from the tournament to victims of Hurricane Katrina, or skip any payments altogether.

Cuban-American lawmakers had lobbied strongly for barring the Havana squad from the tournament, which will be played in March to allow professional ballplayers to participate. Teams from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other countries will be loaded with Major League talent, ensuring a high level of competition.

Cuba has frequently triumphed in international tournaments, including the Olympics, but seldom has had to face Major League-caliber opponents.

Miami Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who wanted Cuba to be represented by players who had defected, called the decision ``lamentable and unfortunate'' and said it would allow Havana ``to utilize a sporting event for propaganda purposes while Castro's security agents keep a watchful eye on the Cuban players to prevent their escape to freedom.''

Cuban sports teams are often accompanied by security agents on trips abroad because of fears of defections. Diaz-Balart said he would help any Cuban player who wanted to defect.

Some, like Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who was born on the island, had proposed having Cuba represented by a team of Cuban-American ballplayers.

The ruling on the World Baseball Classic came just weeks after Cuban-Americans in South Florida were angered by the Coast Guard's decision to return to Cuba 15 migrants who had landed on the piling of an old bridge in the Florida keys.

Major League Baseball officials were clearly pleased with the decision to let Cuba play.

``The presence of Cuba in the tournament ensures the highest level of competition for the tournament which, for the first time, will bring together the very best players throughout the world in a single event,'' said Bob DuPuy, MLB president and chief operating officer in an e-mail response.

The Cubans are expected to play in a four-team qualifying round in San Juan, Puerto Rico, March 12-15. If they win that round, and a second round, they would advance to semifinals in San Diego on March 18. The championship game will be March 20 in San Diego.

The rejection of the first license application sparked an outcry from critics who argued that sports and politics should not be mixed. And its reversal Friday was hailed by critics of U.S. economic sanctions on the island.

``Allowing Cuba to play in this baseball tournament was the right decision, both for the fans and for international relations,'' said Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., who enjoys friendly relations with Cuba and signed a letter with 90 other lawmakers urging that Cuba be allowed to play ball.

But despite the resolution to the baseball issue, tensions between the two nations are likely to continue dogging Cuba's participation in U.S. sporting events. On Friday, Cuba's official Granma newspaper carried a story protesting a U.S. decision to deny visas to two cyclists and their trainer to take part in the third stage of the World Cycling Cup qualifiers.

Jose Pelaez, head of the Cuban Cycling Federation, was quoted as saying that the denial violates international sporting regulations that oblige host nations to guarantee entry to athletes to compete in international events. The event is to be held in Los Angeles on Jan. 20-23.

Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Clark Spencer contributed to this report from Miami.

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