BY KEVIN BAXTER | Miami Herald
Imagine an All-Star team with Jorge Posada behind the plate, Gold Glove winners Mike Lowell and Rey Ordoñez on the left side of the infield and a pitching staff of Jose Contreras, Livan and Orlando Hernández backed by closer Danys Baez.
Major League Baseball has. And fielding such a team was one of the options it considered in the event the Cuban government decides not to send its powerful seleccion nacional to next spring’s World Baseball Classic.
‘‘When you throw out scenarios, it’s something you have to think about,’’ said Paul Archey, baseball’s senior vice president for international relations. “We have this group of Cuban players. Never say never, but it’s not something that’s being contemplating right now. We expect Cuba to play.’‘
MLB, which is organizing the 16-nation World Cup-style tournament, the first international baseball event to feature the best professional players from each country, is still negotiating with the Cuban government about its participation. At the same time, however, it is developing contingency plans in the event an agreement can’t be reached.
‘‘We’re still hopeful,’’ Ronaldo Peralta, manager of MLB’s office in the Dominican Republic, said of Cuba. “But we’re running out of time.’‘
The most likely scenario in the event Cuba declines to participate is to simply replace it with a team from either Nicaragua or Colombia, both of whom having already petitioned baseball for a spot in the tournament’s Caribbean bracket, alongside host Puerto Rico, Panama and the Netherlands.
‘‘I can tell you that both of teams have shown interest and will be given consideration,’’ Archey said.
Colombia could field a team anchored by big-league shortstops Orlando Cabrera of the Los Angeles Angels and Edgar Renteria of the Boston Red Sox, and Nicaragua, which finished fourth in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, would be led by Philadelphia Phillies All-Star pitcher Vicente Padilla and former major-league outfielder Marvin Benard.
‘‘The strong possibility is that if Cuba doesn’t go, either Nicaragua or Colombia will,’’ Peralta said. But, he added, “Plan C that I have heard of is to field a team of Cubans . . . living outside the country.’‘
Under that scenario, players either born in Cuba would be eligible to play. Some, such as the Marlins’ Lowell, whose father-in-law was a political prisoner in Cuba, and Baltimore’s Rafael Palmeiro, who fled Cuba as a boy, have already said they would not represent Cuba as long as Fidel Castro is in power. And some, such as defector and World Series hero Jose Contreras of the Chicago White Sox, have said they would happily play for the Cuban national team, even one selected by the communist government.
For others, however, the situation is more nuanced.
‘‘If they made a team of Cuban defectors from the U.S., I would play,’’ said former Marlins’ pitcher Michael Tejera, who defected from Cuban as a teen. “If they made a team with all the players here, it’s not a problem.’‘
Ordoñez, Baez, first baseman Jorge Luis Toca and outfielder Alex Sánchez—all former major-leaguers who defected from Cuba—also said they would be interested in playing under the right circumstances.
‘‘I’d love to play,’’ added Eddie Oropesa, who defected in 1993 and has pitched in the big leagues for three teams.
Added agent Michael Maulini, who represents a number of Cuban defectors: “I have talked to some of my clients, [and] they would love to represent their country if Cuba voids the competition. I have a list of guys who will do it. It will be a decent team.’‘
Archey hopes it doesn’t come to that.
‘‘We have every reason to believe that Cuba is going to participate,’’ he said. “Security is certainly one issue. [But] it’s a political issue. In both countries.’‘
If Cuba decides to participate—and Archey is hoping for a firm answer by the end of the month—it will play its first two rounds in Puerto Rico, where more than 42 Cuban athletes, coaches and journalists defected during the Central American and Caribbean Games 12 years ago. And the semifinals and final will be played in San Diego, an even more unsettling prospect for a baseball program that has seen more than 140 players defect to the United States since 1991.
And that exodus has left the Cubans to quietly grapple with another problem as they consider entering a tournament against major-leaguers: How competitive will their team be?
The Cubans have dominated international amateur play in the past four decades, which has won the government major propaganda points, but its national team has never faced the level of competition they’ll see in the World Baseball Classic.
And an early exit could deal serious harm to the aura of invincibility Cuba has built up around its national team.
‘‘We believe they have every intention of committing,’’ Archey said. “But we’re still in those discussions right now with them on the terms. We’re very confident and optimistic that they are going to play.’’