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Posted January 30, 2006 by publisher in Cuban Sports

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By Alvaro Martin | ESPN.com

Major League Baseball can stop holding its breath now that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has approved the license request by the majors that allows the Cuban national baseball team to play in the World Baseball Classic.

Cuba’s presence assures the competitive legitimacy of this tournament, now that the reigning World Cup and Olympic champion is on board. It also helps that Puerto Rico once again is slated to become the site for the first and second rounds of the Classic.

Cuba’s absence could have been catastrophic. If Cuba didn’t participate, the International Baseball Federation promised to deny the Classic its sanction. In that case, countries such as Japan, Taiwan and Korea probably would have not sent their athletes to compete in March because, by participating, they potentially would have forfeited playing in a future Olympic Games or baseball World Cup. The majority of those countries’ players do not play in the majors but look forward to playing in those two prestigious international tournaments.

Without the Asian teams’ participation, the World Baseball Classic likely would have collapsed or become a hemispheric event. It is important to note that the United States government never denied Cuba entry into the United States. Each participating federation participating in the Classic receives at least 1 percent of the tournament’s profits—up to 10 percent if it wins the final at Petco Park on March 20. MLB presented that arrangement in its original license application. OFAC was simply doing its job, enforcing the law of the land.

The U.S. government prohibits doing business or handing American dollars to Cuban entities or citizens without the Treasury Department’s license. OFAC had to reject the original MLB application as presented. This mistake by MLB is puzzling as the league had to go through the same process in 1999 when the Baltimore Orioles played their exhibition against the Cuban national team in Havana. Once MLB persuaded Cuba to donate its proceeds to American victims of Hurricane Katrina, the resubmitted license was approved normally.

Cuba’s favorable attitude toward the Classic from the outset, and its malleability in donating its share of the proceeds to accommodate the embargo with relatively little fanfare, are unmistakable signs the country is eager to be part of a tournament that promises to have a competitive level the Cubans have never faced in international competition. The Cuban government and its baseball federation seem to show that, in their opinion, they have a team that can win the inaugural Classic. A victory over the United States in a final would be, in their minds, a sporting and political triumph.

Cuba will enjoy at least two advantages coming into this tournament. First, it will have continuity in its playing philosophy and in its personnel. I assume the Cubans will not tinker significantly with the team that won the gold medal in Athens in 2004 and the gold in Rotterdam (baseball’s World Cup) in 2005. In the latter tournament, Michel Enrquez led all batters with a .500 average and Youlieski Gourriel hit eight home runs over the 11 games played. On the mound, Cuba will feature a 25-year-old lefty named Yuliesky Gonzlez, who won three games in the Netherlands, as well as veteran closer Pedro Lazo, who finished fifth with a minuscule 0.54 ERA. Higinio Velez, I would imagine, will return as the team manager.

The Cubans’ second advantage is the tiny margin for error the schedule of this tournament allows. The World Cup and the Classic do not quite have single-elimination formats, but two losses in either of the first rounds of the Classic can doom any team. We are not talking about a seven-game series here. The Cuban team is used to playing in close games and to facing a deficit late in games.

Asian teams also will be largely made up of players used to this environment. National teams such as those of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the United States and Venezuela will be made up of players who have not played together and who likely will have to adjust to a slightly different role and attitude than on their major league team.

How will the U.S. react if it is down by a couple of runs in the eighth? Many believe that simply will not happen, that this baseball “Dream Team” will waltz through the Classic the way its NBA counterparts did in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. If faced with adversity, who will produce and who will fold? American players are perfectly capable of adjusting to new situations and have faced major league playoff pressure. The World Baseball Classic promises to introduce situations they have never faced before—as hosts and heavy favorites. Cuba can rely on a history of playing and winning close games, of coming from behind in the late innings.

The World Baseball Classic is like democracy; it is easy to find its faults (pitch counts, its timing during spring training)—until you consider the alternatives. Only MLB and the MLB Players Association were in a position to make this event happen, and to do so, they had to persuade many entities and individuals MLB had no control over to go along.

The inaugural Classic probably will not be a colossal moneymaker for the players or for the majors—that potential lies in the future, if this tournament fulfills its promise and the competition is compelling. For now, players and organizers are determined to gather the best athletes ever to compete in this sport under one, unforgiving format.

Personally, I cannot wait for the Classic to start.

Alvaro Martin is a baseball broadcaster for ESPN Deportes.

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