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FROM THIS EPISODE

Baseball Classic Hardly Classic without Cuba

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Every afternoon of the year, right around 4 o'clock, come rain or come shine, you can hear a swelling chorus of empassioned voices emanating from the Esquina Caliente, or Hot Corner, in Havana's Central Park. The energy is tangible. These men raise their voices to discuss, argue, express outrage and admiration, to analyze and to eulogize. The subject is neither politics, nor religion. Three hundred sixty-five days a year, these guys immerse themselves in the national passion of Cuba, which is baseball. I've thrown myself into the frey at La Esquina Caliente many times and I've caught on to a recurring theme. Yes, you'll hear that Jose Contreras and El Duque have done Cuba proud in helping the White Sox win the World Series. Yes, the guys will squawk that 22 Major Leaguers last season came from Cuba--proof positive that their small, poor country continues to produce some of the greatest players in the game. But for more than a century, the dream has been to front a Cuban National Team against the best in the world, to finally discover just how the Cuban All-Stars would fare as a force, not just the source of exiles sprinkled throughout the Major Leagues. In 1999 a Cuban team did split games with the Baltimore Orioles, but that was exhibition play. But these particular afternoons, the din of La Esquina Caliente has grown to a roar because the possibility of mounting real competition against the Americans has at last arrived.

This March, for the first time, there will be a World Baseball Classic. Sixteen countries will play and Cuba, of course, is among the invitees. Cuba will suit up against the Dominican Republic and Japan and the United States. But wait a minute. The long-awaited dream of virtually every Cuban citizen is evaporating before the very eyes of the throng at La Esquina Caliente. Under the continued embargo of Cuba by the U.S. Treasury Department, especially since this Baseball Classic will offer prize money, Cuba has been denied entry to the tournament. Since that decision by the U.S. government, Cuba has come back with a plan to give any money earned by their team in the tournament to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Their new application is under consideration at the moment and pressure for the Treasury Department to flip their decision is mounting. Puerto Rico, where Cuba's first round games would be played, says it will drop from the tournament, should Cuba be denied. The International Baseball Federation states it will revoke its sanction of the entire event if Cuba is not allowed to compete.

We had no problem letting Cuban athletes compete in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Was that because they earned no money? The strong-arm against Cubans benefiting from American dollars supposedly flexes out of the wealthy Cuban-American community in Miami, many of whom donate generously to the Republican party. It's ironic that the bulk of that Little Havana community in Miami were extremely rich people under the corrupt Batista government in the Cuba of the 1950's. That was the whole genesis of the Castro revolution, to break up the Batista corruption and give the starving people of that regime a chance to live a decent life. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans today defend Fidel's fight to end the disparate and desperate regime of the vastly rich lording over the starving poor and provide every citizen education, health care, and basic comfort. I've been in some of the former homes of the displaced Cubans who now live in Miami. Many of them akin to small hotels with multiple swimming pools, six-car garages, and dozens of bedrooms. These are the U.S. citizens who now can't stomach a team of poor baseball players from their former homeland making a little cash on American soil? This is the power base, the former quasi-royalty of Havana, who pressure President Bush into continuing the Cuban embargo?

If they play the World Baseball Classic without Cuba, it will hardly be a Classic. It will be a travesty.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

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