Sunday, January 22, 2006

Herald: Cuba can play, but will it show up?

Even though the United States allowed Cuba's invitation to the World Baseball Classic, there are several reasons why the three-time Olympic champions might choose not to participate in the event.


SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - The approval Friday of Cuba's invitation to play in March's World Baseball Classic assures the participation of the 15 other invited nations and might give the inaugural tournament prestige it would have lacked without the three-time Olympic champion.

What it doesn't do, however, is assure Cuba's participation. Some international baseball experts -- many of whom doubted Cuban's participation from the start -- believe there are a number of things that could keep the island nation out of the event, including the high probability of defections, the good chance that Cuba would not make it past the tournament's second round and the timing of the World Classic, which falls in the middle of Cuba's domestic baseball championships.

And consider that injuries have sidelined three of the national team's best pitchers, and a last-second pull-out by Cuba appears possible despite the U.S. Treasury Department's approval.

''Personally, I don't think they're going to show up,'' said Joe Kehoskie, a baseball agent who follows the Cuban program closely. ``All the factors working against them before are all still there. There's not only the risk of defections, but the risk of losing, which would be an embarrassment.''

Since the 1959 Castro revolution, Cuba's seleccion nacional has established itself as the best amateur team in the world. Aside from its three Olympic titles, the Cubans have won countless major global championships and once went more than a decade without losing an international tournament game.


And though the Cuban baseball program has been rocked by the defection of more than 100 players to the United States since 1991, it has continued to dominate international amateur play -- largely because the majority of the important competitions take place in the summer or early fall, when the best players from the Dominican, Venezuela, the U.S. and Japan are playing for their major-league teams.

As a result, the World Classic will mark the first time Cuba will face the best players from the other major baseball-playing countries -- and that could mean not only an early elimination from the tournament but a propaganda setback as well, because the Cuban government always has pointed toward the success of its baseball team to validate its political ideology.

Cuba is scheduled to open play March 8 against Panama. Its four-team pool also includes Puerto Rico and the Netherlands. Should it advance to the second round, Cuba likely would meet powerful teams from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela that are full of major-league stars.

That's stiff competition for a team that will be missing right-hander Norge Vera, who outdueled first-round draft pick Jared Weaver in the 2003 Pan Am final; right-hander Danny Betancourt, who won the 2004 Olympic gold medal game; and right-hander Vicyohandry Odelin, leaving only two front-line pitchers -- left-hander Adiel Palma and veteran right-hander Pedro Luis Lazo -- to anchor a weak Cuban staff that will be furthered hampered by tournament rules, which include a strict pitch count.

On offense, the Cubans are in better shape with right fielder Osmani Urrutia, a .400 hitter in Cuba's national series, versatile infielder Yulieski Gourriel and veteran catcher Ariel Pestano all available.


In an effort to make defections more difficult, Cuban's national team has not played on U.S. soil since beating the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition at Camden Yards in 1999. Yet Friday's agreement with Classic organizers reportedly requires the Cuban team to show up in Puerto Rico without its regular -- and sizable -- security contingent.

''That's a perfect out,'' Kehoskie said. ``That gives them a reason not to come.''

If Cuba does pull out, it likely would be replaced by Nicaragua, which would be interesting, because the Nicaraguan media recently released a national team roster that included two Cuban defectors with Nicaraguan residency, including World Series star Jose Contreras.

But whether Cuba shows up, Friday's announcement figures to placate the International Baseball Federation, which had threatened to withdraw its sanction of the Classic if Cuba had been banned.

''I don't think they're going to show. But if the news arrives that the Cuban team is in San Juan, I might go over and check it out,'' Kehoskie said. ``I think it's going to be an interesting tournament.''

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