Living In Fear Of Cuban Beisbol

AROUND THE RIM

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Since the Cold War has been over for lo these many years, I think it's high time the United States quit picking on the tiny island nation of Cuba.

Unless, of course, we really are afraid their baseball team just might whip us in the upcoming inaugural World Baseball Classic.

The official reason we initially told the Cubans they couldn't play in the tournament is that we still have an economic embargo on them. Because they would share in the revenue generated by the tournament, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (does that sound like a bureaucracy or what) said their participation would violate that embargo.

The U.S. placed the embargo on Cuba 45 years ago, and it remains in place to this day. Way back in 1975, Sen. Ted Kennedy pointed out its futility.

"I believe the idea of isolating Cuba was a mistake," Kennedy said. "It has been ineffective. Whatever the reasons and justifications may have been at the time, now they are invalid."

Meanwhile, the Cuban "beisbol" team has pretty much had its way with us, winning the gold medal three of four times since baseball became an Olympic sport, and winning 23 of the 26 world championships they have taken part in -- including the last nine in a row. That's called "dominacion" in any language.

There are those who say the Cubans are only dominant because their amateurs are really professionals and they compete against our amateurs. And it's true: the Cuban government pays them to play baseball.

But when U.S. college athletes get scholarships and many get additional money under the table, where's the difference.

Besides, in next month's World Baseball Classic, 16 nations will vie for the title using major league players competing for their home countries. The teams will start play in four four-team pools that will play round-robins in different countries.

The four winners advance to semifinal games on March 18 in the U.S., followed by a winner-take-all final game on March 20, also in the U.S.

The field includes legitimate baseball nations like Japan and the Dominican Republic, but it also includes baseball wastelands like South Africa and the Netherlands.

When Cuban President Fidel Castro heard about the initial U.S. decision banning his baseball team, he had a field day. He even offered to give Cuba's share of the gate to U.S. hurricane victims.

The rest of the world howled in outrage, as we indulged once again in what is becoming as American a pastime as baseball itself -- self-inflicted black eyes.

It wasn't long before we backed down and decided to let the Cubans play after all, but the damage has been done. The U.S. bully has reared its ugly head once again, this time with just a hint of cowardice thrown in.

The U.S. should win the World Baseball Classic going away -- with or without Cuba in the field. But you just never know.

Baseball is a funny game. The best team in the major leagues can still lose 50 games. You can make up for a terrible performance with one swing of the bat. And on any given day, an underdog can rise up and smite a powerhouse.

One thing we do know -- we have earned the anger and scorn of the Cuban people.

"Enough already!" Cuban Antonio Mayeta said. "It's unbelievable. This is about sports, not politics. In Cuba, baseball is our culture."

It's not only their culture; it's their passion.

"Everyone from (Cuban President) Fidel (Castro) to little boys are born with a bat in their hands," Cuban Victor Renglon said. "They took away the opportunity for us to watch our world and Olympic champion team measure up against those from the major leagues."

But there's another reason we should have welcomed the Cuban "beisbol" team with open arms. It's best expressed by a cartoon that's been on my refrigerator door for years.

It shows former President Jimmy Carter speaking at a podium, with Fidel at his side. Carter says:

"Ending the embargo would give Cuba exposure to the fruits of a free and open society, and in return the U.S. would gain access to something it desperately needs -- pitching."

Or if, like me, you're having trouble seeing the humor in all of this, here are the words of respected U.S. journalist Walter Lippmann:

"For the thing we should never do in dealing with revolutionary countries, in which the world abounds, is to push them behind an iron curtain raised by ourselves. On the contrary, even when they have been seduced and subverted and are drawn across the line, the right thing to do is to keep the way open for their return."

Lippmann wrote those words in 1959 -- the year before the embargo took effect. The time has come to let Cuba rejoin the world.

Play ball.

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