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by Bruce Baskin, VIVA BEISBOL editor

It’s hard to imagine Fidel Castro and George W. Bush agreeing on much of anything. While both have been depicted as dictators by their detractors, there is little in common between the two men. However, one thing that binds Castro and Bush is baseball. Castro is a former aspiring pitcher who has had a lifelong love of the game, while Bush is a former baseball team owner who has said he’d rather talk baseball than politics at state dinners.

Major League Baseball in the United States organized the WBC as a 16-team tournament in which teams representing nations from all over the world came together in March for what could be described as the first “real” World Series in the sport’s history. However, a political firestorm erupted when the U.S. Treasury Department decreed that Cuba should not be allowed to play due to the decades-long embargo placed in effect by the U.S. against the island nation in the early 1960’s in an effort to destabilize the Castro regime. Nine American presidents later, Castro remains in power in Cuba, which might indicate the embargo has been somewhat less than fully effective. However, the embargo does remain in place, and somehow the Treasury Department took that to mean that Cuba’s amateur baseball players should not be allowed to take part in the WBC, presumably because their participation would be the beginning of the end of capitalism as we know it.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and Cuba was given the green light to play in the tournament. At that point, the question turned from whether Cuba should play to whether Cuba could play against major league level competition. While Cuba has compiled an enviable record in international baseball, it was noted that record came against mostly amateur and collegiate competition. Now, some skeptics asked, how will the Cubans do against the greatest talent in the world?

The answer is now in: Just fine, thanks. After a somewhat shaky start in the first round in which Cuba barely got past a weak Panama team and took a severe pasting at the hands of Puerto Rico, the Cubans were able to squeak into the second round of the tournament. While they played better in that stage of the competition, they still had to struggle to reach the tournament semifinals in San Diego. That’s when things got interesting, even with the absence of Cuba’s greatest nemesis in politics and baseball, the USA (who was eliminated by a surprising Mexico team in the second round).

In their semi clash with the Dominican Republic, which Cuba won 3-1 in a very well-pitched ballgame by both sides, there were strains of the chants of “Coo-BAH, Coo-BAH, Coo-BAH” coming from the stands in obvious support of the red-clad beisboleros on the field. When Cuba faced (and lost to) Japan in the WBC championship game, those chants were louder and louder. Who was chanting? Were they Cuban ex-pats in San Diego to cheer for their homeland? Were they other Latino fans rooting for another Hispanic country against an Asian foe? Were they Americans showing support for the target of what they feel is an unjust embargo by their own government? My guess is that there was a little bit of each coming together as a whole.

Even though they did not win the WBC title, there is no doubt left among anyone that Cuban ballplayers rank with the world’s best, especially the batters; and three Cuban players were picked to the all-tournament team: second baseman Yulieski Gourriel (who batted .303), designated hitter Yoandy Garlobo (who had scouts drooling with a resounding .480 average) and relief pitcher Yadel Marti (who went 1-0 with two saves and allowed no earned runs in 12.2 innings pitched).

And so the first World Baseball Classic is over. Cuba showed strongly, and yet capitalism survived. While the embargo remains fully in place, many Americans have had their first chance to view Cubans as human beings instead of as subjects of political polemics; while many Cubans have had their first chance to view the success that capitalism and freedom have historically enjoyed in the United States.

One of the first steps towards peace between nations is the sharing among the people of things they hold in common. India and Pakistan have warred politically and militarily for over 50 years, and could not be considered “friends” under the best of circumstances. Yet, when India hosted Pakistan two years ago in a series in the sport of cricket, people who have nuclear arms aimed at each other were able to come together to share a sport both love passionately, and relations between those two nations have thawed somewhat as a result. The hope here is that the leaders of both Cuba and the United States took similar lessons home with them.

Some things transcend mere politics...and baseball is one of them.

Replies: 3 comments

You covered all the bases. As a Cuban living in the USA, I felt proud of my Cuban team despite that defectors were not invited to play because politics.

Posted by Cubano @ 04/07/2006 04:22 PM EST

Well said, Bruce Baskin. At the end when the Cubans lined up to shake hands with the winning Japanese, there was a lesson for all to see. Those of us lucky enough to understand have always known that baseball holds the keys to peace. As Bart Giamatti said . . ."it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun."

Posted by Max Blue @ 04/06/2006 05:42 AM EST

As a guy who was getting out of bed at 2AM!!to watch the Cubans progress through the tournament, I'd like not only to agree with the sentiment in your article, but also express a long term hope, that future games can be organised between American and Cuban teams.Which over the coarse of time might eat away at the crazy fears expressed by politicians on both sides,educating all and breaking down outdated barriers.

Posted by Paul Trotter, Edinburgh,UK. @ 04/05/2006 12:40 PM EST

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