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Bush to Cuba: Play ball

| Saturday, Jan. 21, 2006

NEW YORK -- The Bush administration is letting Cuba play ball.

The Cubans will be allowed to participate in the inaugural World Baseball Classic after the U.S. government reversed course Friday and issued the special license necessary for the communist nation to play in the 16-team tournament.

Baseball's first application was denied in mid-December by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, but the commissioner's office and the players' association reapplied Dec. 22 after Cuba said it would donate any profits it receives to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"The president wanted to see it resolved in a positive way," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "Our concerns were centered on making sure that no money was going to the Castro regime and that the World Baseball Classic would not be misused by the regime for spying. We believe the concerns have been addressed."

The license was required by 45-year-old American sanctions against Cuba designed to prevent Fidel Castro's government from receiving U.S. currency. At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said the initial rejection was based on concerns Cuban spies might accompany the team.

"Working closely with World Baseball Classic Inc. and the State Department, we were able to reach a licensable agreement that upholds both the legal scope and the spirit of the sanctions," Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said. "This agreement ensures that no funding will make its way into the hands of the Castro regime."

After the initial rejection, the International Baseball Federation threatened to withdraw its sanction of the tournament if Cuba was not allowed to participate. International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said this week that any future U.S. bids to host the Olympics would have to ensure there would be no restrictions on participating nations.

Paul Archey, a senior vice president of Major League Baseball International, and union lawyer Doyle Pryor went to Cuba on Jan. 10 and 11 to negotiate terms of Cuba's participation that would be acceptable to the Bush administration.

"Everybody involved in the tournament wanted the best teams in the world to be involved, and certainly Cuba is one of those teams," U.S. manager Buck Martinez said. "Everybody feels pretty confident this is now really going to be a test of the best teams in the world."

Puerto Rico threatened to withdraw as a host site if Cuba wasn't allowed to participate.

"We were always positive," said Antonio Munoz, the promoter who paid millions of dollars to stage the first two rounds in San Juan. "There were some negative people, but they were wrong in the end."

The tournament, the first in which the world's top players will participate on national teams, runs from March 3-20. The other 15 teams submitted their 60-man preliminary rosters earlier this week.

Cuba won the Olympic gold medal in 1992, 1996 and 2004, and the United States won in 2000. Olympic baseball initially was limited to amateur players, but even after professionals were allowed in for the 2000 Sydney Games, major leaguers didn't take part because baseball doesn't stop its regular season for the Olympics.

Cuba's roster is not expected to include defectors, such as Jose Contreras, Orlando Hernandez and Livan Hernandez.

"With Cuba's entry in the tournament approved, the World Baseball Classic promises to be an historic event and will guarantee our fans the greatest possible competition among the best players in the world," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said.

Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens are among the big-name players on the U.S. roster, and Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols and Vladimir Guerrero are on the Dominican team. Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Japan also are expected to be top teams at the tournament.

Cuba is in Group B with Panama, Puerto Rico and the Netherlands, playing its first-round games in San Juan. If they advance, the Cubans also would play their second-round games in San Juan.

"Cuba will step up, of that I have no doubt," said Ramon Enriquez, who was among baseball fans discussing the news at Havana's Parque Central. "Those boys will play with that all-consuming courage."

Other first-round sites include Kissimmee, Fla.; Phoenix; Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Tokyo. Second-round games also will be played in Anaheim, Calif., and the semifinals and final will be in San Diego.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, called the Bush administration's reversal "lamentable and unfortunate," and said the Cuban players should defect once they reach Puerto Rico.

"I hope that the Cuban players will use this opportunity to escape totalitarianism and reach freedom in the U.S.," said Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American.

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