HAVANA - President Fidel Castro has given the go-ahead for Cuba to play in the World Baseball Classic next March, vowing a clash between Cuban amateur sport and American professionalism that has lured away many Cuban stars.
The 16-nation World Cup-style baseball event is the first international tournament to include major-league players and will begin on March 3 in Tokyo and end in San Diego three weeks later.
Cuban involvement had been in doubt for an event that will be played mainly in the United States, Castro’s ideological foe and a magnet for the defection of communist Cuba’s best players attracted by multimillion-dollar contracts.
Talent scouts and Cuban exile community go-betweens are expected to contact the better prospects on the Cuban team, raising the risk of new defections.
“We can do it better and take on the major leagues. ... For each player that leaves, 10 better ones arise,” Castro said on Wednesday night about the drain of Cuban
The list of defectors includes such big-league stars as pitchers Jose Contreras and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez of the World Series champion Chicago White Sox
and Hernandez’s brother Livan Hernandez, who pitches for the Washington Nationals.
Olympic champion Cuba has dominated international baseball because the best American professional players seldom go to bat for their country, so the
unprecedented tournament in March could decide which country is king of the sport.
Baseball was introduced to the Caribbean in Cuba a century and a half ago by American sailors loading sugar. The sport is a national passion on the island.
Cuba’s communist government does not allow professional sport and even the top Cuban players earn meager wages. Many dream of playing for big money in the United States.
A Cuban team last played in the United States in 1999 in an exhibition game in Baltimore against the major-league Orioles. None of the Cuban players defected.
Castro: Count on us
“Yes, of course, we accept the challenge ... count on us at the party,” Castro said in a television appearance.
The World Baseball Classic is being organized by the International Baseball Federation, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Cuba was preparing its team with players that were “better than those who left,” Castro said.
He said that “some could not resist the millions of the major leagues” and that baseball was the Cuban sport most hit by desertions to the United States.
The last major defector was switch-hitting first baseman Kendry Morales, Cuba’s best up-and-coming slugger who left Cuba in June 2004 by crossing the Florida
Straits in a motorboat packed with other emigres.
Morales, 22, who had been dropped from Cuba’s national team after an earlier attempt to defect, was quickly signed by the Los Angeles Angels organization where
he is playing in the minor leagues.
Despite the constant loss of talent, Cuba took the gold medal for baseball at the 1992, 1996 and 2004 Olympics, falling only to the United States in the finals at the
2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. It has won every IBAF World Cup since 1984.
Besides the United States and Cuba, the other countries playing in March are Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Canada, South Africa, Australia, the Netherlands,
Italy, Mexico, Venezuela, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.