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Baseball and Global Diplomacy

Could a baseball game between Cuba and the U.S. influence future relations between these rivals?

March 7, 2006

Could a baseball game between Cuba and the U.S. influence future relations between these rivals?

With under 100 days left before the 2006 Soccer World Cup, the biggest sports event between now and then is the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Never heard of it? Well, it started at the Tokyo Dome on March 3, 2006, with a first-round South Korea victory over Taiwan. Sixteen nations will compete in the three-week baseball tournament.

Tournament organizers expect to sell 800,000 tickets in seven cities, while broadcasting 39 games to six continents — including a final world championship game on March 20, which will be held in San Diego.

In a world awash with national tournaments for soccer, basketball and cricket, why should anyone but the most ardent fan care about the tournament?

After all, it's an obvious effort by the United States' Major League Baseball organization to further develop television and merchandise markets in Latin America and Asia, as well as in Canada, South Africa, Australia and China, which will also field teams.

There are at least three reasons to watch and wonder if we are witnessing the birth of a movement that could some day rival the World Cup. First, thanks to Washington's self-defeating public diplomacy, the stage is already set for the ultimate David v. Goliath grudge match.

It would feature the U.S. team, which is a modest favorite to win the tournament, squaring off with Cuba, which won the Olympic gold medal in 2004. The island country has long maintained a successful national baseball program, despite human rights concerns about the treatment of its players — and a steady trickle of player defections.

Cuba was almost excluded from the tournament. In the fall of 2005, the U.S. State Department rejected the Cuban team's visa application to compete in tournament games scheduled in the United States.

Predictably enough in the age of global communications, the visa rejection led to weeks of negative media coverage throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It was seen not just as a reflection of Washington's Cuba policy.

The visa move also created the unnecessary perception that President George W. Bush — a former baseball owner — feared a high-profile sports confrontation with Cuba.

After weeks of hand-wringing at the U.S. Department of State, the White House finally intervened in January 2006, to reverse the decision. That move was critical in preventing a disaster for future U.S. bids to host international sporting events such as the Olympics.

Now that the Cubans will play, many people — not just throughout the Americas — hope for the United States and Cuba to meet in the final.

If that happens, fans throughout Latin America may unite behind the offshore island underdog. And in a sport where anything can happen in a one-game final, Fidel Castro might well have the last laugh.

The only thing more awkward than a congratulatory phone call from President Bush to Fidel Castro would be a call from Mr. Bush to his new regional nemesis, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.

Chavez is a former baseball player who frequently refers to the game in political remarks. Venezuela also enters the tournament as a favorite because of its victory in the 2006 Caribbean Series. It also has a strong squad of tournament pitchers — including Johan Santana, the top American League pitcher in 2004.

These juicy and politically charged intra-regional rivalries aside, there are other reasons to see what drama may unfold.

For starters, almost every team in the tournament features at least one star with a fan base that transcends national boundaries. Contrast that with the Olympics, where mostly obscure athletes (who ever heard of Joey Cheek?) showcase fairly obscure sports (curling anyone?) that most viewers forget a week later.

The inaugural World Baseball Classic has the potential at least to create electric moments in which national megastars face off with screaming, flag-waving fans behind them.

One indication of that is the more than 3,500 requests for media credentials the tournament organizers have already fielded — more than for the Winter Olympics in Torino.

Undoubtedly, quite a few of them would love to cover a game-winning home run by New York's Derek Jeter sending a pitch by Venezuela's Santana out of San Diego's PETCO Park. Or a game-saving catch by Japan's Ichiro Suzuki of a line-drive by David Ortiz of the Dominican Republic.

Then, there also are the broader "human interest" stories, such as departing superstars Roger Clemens (U.S.) and Mike Piazza (Italy), who may be taking final bows on an international stage.

Or take Alex "A-Rod" Rodriguez, the American League's "most valuable player" in 2005, and his case of multiple identities. He had initially said he would play for his native Dominican Republic, but changed his mind at least once — and is now representing the United States.

Of course, the inaugural Classic may not live up to the hype fed by the sports network ESPN, which has exclusive English broadcasting rights worldwide. Any bumps in the road, though, can be blamed on a somewhat experimental set of tournament rules.

What made it difficult to pull off the World Classic was that U.S. baseball team owners and players have long been reluctant to give up valuable spring training time and put expensive professional contracts at risk of pre-season injuries.

Thus, in order to get the tournament off the ground, they have carved out a compromise format that provides a bare minimum of games (at most eight, over 13 days) — and sets strict limits on playing time, especially for pitchers.

At least in terms of players participating in the new tournament, the formula seems to have worked. The opportunity to wear their national flags in a competition for bragging rights has drawn many of the game's biggest stars.

With tickets selling fast and the media showing up, complete success only requires a little baseball drama — and, as always, decent TV ratings.

I, for one, will tune in to see which Latin American team gives the proud Americans a run for their money. Of course, we may all end up seeing Asia's ascendance play out on yet another global playing field — the baseball diamond.