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Cuba arrives in Puerto Rico for WBC

By Eric Edwards
March 7, 2006

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.

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