Cuba Arrives In Puerto Rico For WBC

CAROLINA, P.R.–The Cuban national baseball team arrived at noon in
San Juan on Monday under heavy security, grabbed a quick lunch and made
a beeline to the hotel it will be sharing with the three other teams in
Pool C of the World Baseball Classic.

The team didn’t
meet with reporters either at the airport or the hotel, but was
scheduled for a 9:30 a.m. workout at Hiram Bithorn Stadium on Tuesday
and a half-hour press session thereafter.

About 30
Carolina municipal police officers provided security for the team from
the airport to the hotel and stood watch as the team settled in on the
third floor of the cabana section of the upscale El San Juan Hotel, a
five-minute drive from Luis Muñoz Marí­n International Airport.

Reporters
shouted questions from beyond the perimeter established by the police,
but received nothing more in response than a “we’re going to win” from
one of the players. Access to the section of the hotel where the team
is staying is completely restricted.

Puerto Rico opens
play in the 16-nation tournament against Panama at 8 p.m. The Cubans
don’t play until Wednesday at 2 p.m., also against Panama.

Veteran
righthander Len Picota is scheduled to start for Panama against Puerto
Rico. Puerto Rico manager José Oquendo will send White Sox righthander
Javier Vázquez to the mound. Under tournament rules, starting pitchers
will be limited to 65 pitches in opening round games.

In
other WBC games Tuesday, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela play one
of the tournament’s most anticipated games at 1 p.m. Eastern to open
Pool D in Orlando. Australia and Italy face off at 8 p.m. in Pool D’s
second game. Team USA opens play today at 4 p.m. Eastern against Mexico
in Phoenix’s Chase Field, with Pool B’s second game, between Canada and
South Africa, following at 9 p.m. E.T.

Cuba and Puerto
Rico, the two favorites to move on from Pool C, meet on Friday at 8:30
p.m. in a sold-out game. The Cubans play the Netherlands on Thursday.

There
will be plenty of intrigue off the field before that matchup from those
who are doing all they can behind the scenes to facilitate defections
by the Cuban players.

In the past 10 years, no Cuban baseball player has defected on U.S. soil.

The
last time the Cuban baseball team traveled to Puerto Rico was in 1993
for the Central American-Caribbean Games. The Cuban baseball team won
the gold medal at that event in Ponce and two days after the games,
played an exhibition game at Hiram Bithorn Stadium against the San Juan
Metros. Played to a packed house, San Juan won the game 4-3 on a
two-run home run by Javier López with two outs in the bottom of the
ninth inning.

During the CAC Games that preceded that
exhibition, held in Ponce, a total of 42 athletes (from sports other
than baseball) requested political asylum. All told, 137 Cuban baseball
players have left Cuba, according to data compiled by Joe Kehoskie, an
agent who specializes in Cuban players.

Cuban activist
Julio Labatud, rumored to have helped 41 Cuban athletes defect during
the 1993 Central American-Caribbean Games in Ponce, said he’s convinced
the possibility of player desertion exists.

“Anything
that is planned is being done so in total secrecy, so we would not
discuss it or even know about it,” said Labatud, “There are a lot of
talent scouts for whom the Cuban baseball players represent a lot of
money, and I’m sure that if they could find a way to convince one or
two to defect, they would do so.”

Labatud, however, said he personally would have nothing to do with bartering Cuban baseball talent for cash incentives.

“If
someone comes to me and asks for my help leaving Cuba because they are
being persecuted or cannot live under Castro . . . I will do everything
in my power to help that person,” Labatud said. “But for money, I won’t
get involved or help anyone.”

Labatud said he did not
know whether it was true that Cuban activists had bought entire
sections of seating for Cuba’s games at the stadium with the hope of
getting close to the players.

Angel Padilla, who fled
Cuba 33 years ago and is now the editor of El Disidente, an anti-Castro
publication in San Juan, said he thought some of the stories of Cuban
exiles bribing hotel waiters to get close to the Cubans were a bit
fanciful.

“Those are exaggerated rumors,” Padilla said.
“The players are going to move around the hotel like anyone else. Every
time the Cubans have been here, Puerto Ricans have been able to walk
right up to them and talk to them. I don’t think this time will be any
different.

“Desertion is a very personal matter. I personally won’t be inciting anyone to desert.”

No
Cuban baseball players have ever defected in Puerto Rico. The Cuban
national baseball team was to have competed last October in Puerto Rico
at the regional qualifier for the Central American-Caribbean Games, but
did not show up due to a last-minute visa snafu.

International | #2006 #International Affairs #World Baseball Classic

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