Castro confirms Cuban participation in Classic

1/25/2006 - MLB

HAVANA -- Fidel Castro confirmed Wednesday that his country would play in the World Baseball Classic in Cuba's first official reaction to the U.S. government's decision allowing the communist country to participate.

"We will be there, but I would never have thought I would have to answer that question," Castro told reporters who questioned him during a surprise visit Wednesday night to a construction site outside the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Still, the Cuban president warned, "that is if [the Americans] don't start in on messing around with not giving the visas, or if they go crazy."

The U.S. government reversed course Friday and issued the special license necessary for Cuba to play in the 16-team tournament -- part of which will be played Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.

Major League Baseball's first application was denied in mid-December by the U.S. Treasury Department.

But the baseball 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 -- a guarantee that the communist country would receive no financial profit from the event.

Although Castro has spoken in public numerous times since, neither he nor any other Cuban official has mentioned the U.S. government decision allowing Cuba to play ball.

The Cuban leader said his country's team "will play clean ... to win or lose battling over there" during the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

"We're not going to say that we're the best," Castro said.

"They have taken away a lot of the best pitchers, offering them millions of dollars," he added, referring to Cuban players who left for big-paying jobs in the major leagues.

The biggest losses to Cuban baseball in recent years were the defections of pitchers Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras, who were key players for the World Series champion Chicago White Sox last year.

Cuba won the gold medal for baseball in the Olympic Games in 1992, 1996 and 2004 but lost in the final to the United States in 2000.