By Jim Caple
Page 2

Trying to make sense of our government's refusal to let Cuba compete in the World Baseball Classic? It's easy. All you need is a little amnesia.

First, forget that Cuba was allowed to compete in Atlanta in the 1996 Olympics. Next, forget that it played an exhibition game against the Orioles in Baltimore in 1999. Then forget that even our current administration allowed Cuba's national soccer team to compete in last year's CONCACAF Gold Cup in Seattle.

While you're at it, forget that our government is letting that well-known global leader in human rights -- mainland China -- play in the World Baseball Classic. Forget also that our myopic foreign policy toward Cuba has failed to oust Fidel Castro after more than 40 years while hurting Cuban citizens far more than Castro. And oh yes, forget that our own government has prisoners locked up in Cuba's Guantanamo Bay for an indefinite period.

Have you erased all that from your memory? Good. Because if we're all able to forget one more thing, I'll give the current administration a cynical reason why it should allow Cuba into the WBC. If allowed to play in the WBC, the Cubans will lose big on a world stage. That's because you can also forget Cuba's international domination in baseball over the decades.

Why? For one thing, Cuba's international domination was on the amateur level, rarely beating anyone but college-age prospects and career minor leaguers. More importantly, that domination was in the past.

Baseball may still be Cuba's national pastime, but its game has been in decline thanks to an exodus of talent and a stifling of competitive opportunity. Granted, Cuba won the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, but that's primarily because the Americans weren't there. The Cuban team was a shadow of its former self in Athens. Cuba struggled against Australia in the gold medal game, in which it was aided by a controversial call. Heck, Cuba needed three relievers in the ninth inning just to beat Greece, a team that included a 35-year-old mortgage broker from Florida. I saw only two players on that 2004 team who impressed me as possible major leaguers.

Cuban baseball players
AP
The state of baseball in Cuba is not what it once was.

When they had Omar Linares, Orestes Kindelan and aluminum bats in the 1996 Olympics, the Cubans launched towering home runs into the upper deck of Fulton County Stadium and walked away with the gold medal. But those days are gone. Since dropping aluminum for wood bats, the Cuban team has shown a distressing lack of power. I've seen it in person in the Olympics and in the Cuban league in Havana. Whatever the reason, right now Cuba simply doesn't have a very potent lineup to send out against Roger Clemens, Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez.

Cuba will have teamwork, tradition and national pride, but its lineup simply won't be enough against major league opposition.

Perhaps the national team's decline has been partially because Castro is too afraid of defections to send its best players abroad. We still should welcome whoever he's willing to send. There are many good reasons we should -- simple decency, the spirit of athletic competition, our future hopes of ever hosting another Olympics -- and no good reason we should not.

If you want the United States to look like a petty tyrant with a hypocritical foreign policy, then by all means, ban Cuba from playing. That way, we'll drop right into Castro's propaganda purposes. We'll look like the big bully afraid to see our millionaire players get beaten by little Cuba, afraid to take charity from an island off the coast of Florida. Castro is already playing this tune, saying this week, "It's very difficult to compete against us in any area ... not even in baseball do they want to compete against Cuba."

That's nonsense, but our wrongheaded foreign policy allows him to spread this view.

Fortunately, there's a very easy way for the current administration to shut him up and also embarrass him: Let Cuba play and get beat. Let Fidel and the world see how far his sport has fallen.

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.




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