This March’s "World Series of Baseball" was supposed to celebrate the explosion of diversity that has forever altered the Major Leagues. Teams from the Dominican Republic, Japan, Puerto Rico, and the little seen but highly regarded Cuban national team were going to play the United States in an unprecedented contest to redefine the slogan "America’s Pastime."
But then the Bush administration, yearning for more reasons to be internationally despised, decided to destroy it. In a beautiful act of small government at work, the White House Gang, through the Treasury Department, has denied the Cuban team entry into the United States, effectively gutting the harmless exhibition. As one Cuban citizen told The New York Times, "Enough already! It’s unbelievable. This is about sports, not politics. In Cuba, baseball is our culture. Everyone was so anxious to see these games."
But the White House disagrees. "I think our policy regarding Cuba is pretty well known," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said. "We want people in Cuba to participate in freedom." That is, the freedom to not be a constant source of irritation and embarrassment. The freedom not to criticize neoliberalism. The freedom not to have higher literacy rates and better health care than the United States. Of course, the lack of certain political freedoms in Cuba is very real. But to hear the Bush gang lecture any nation about freedom — given the fact that they are currently engineering two occupations and defending domestic spying — is like hearing Hugh Hefner pontificate about abstinence. In reality, this is consistent with a U.S. policy toward Cuba that began under Bill Clinton with the passage of the Helms-Burton Act. The U.S. wants Cuba to be a pariah nation, its life choked out by an embargo.
The politicians on the "exploding cigars" fringe of government are lauding the Bush decision. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican with dreams of Havana Casinos, chortled with glee. "There are plenty of free Cuban players and Cuban-Americans here in the Majors who would be proud to represent Cuba, and they should be able to and not a totalitarian regime that would share in any proceeds from this tournament."
Perhaps Diaz-Balart needs to dust off his copy of the Baseball Almanac. His team of actively playing Major League Cuban émigrés would consist of just three pitchers, two of them brothers. Then Diaz-Balart, flexing his chutzpah reflex, compared Bush’s "brave" baseball embargo to the 1970s and ’80s international sports ban on teams from South Africa. Of course it was a global movement against the racist apartheid system that launched the South African ban, not the U.S. government. Moreover, this act of solidarity was virulently opposed by the Reagan administration and United States Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage.
The anti-Cuban baseball brigade could also affect future U.S. efforts to secure the Olympics. "[The U.S.] will have big problems down the road," said the delightfully named Dick Pound, an International Olympic Committee member from Canada. If not reversed, he said "it would completely scupper any bid" by the United States for the Summer or Winter Games.
One of the strongest voices against the ban is Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Angelos brought the Cuban team over to the U.S. to play the O’s in 1999 because he actually opposes the U.S. embargo. He is somewhat of an anomaly among owners, a lawyer who made his fortune suing asbestos manufacturers and cigarette companies, and defending unions. That doesn’t make him a good baseball executive, a fact to which any Orioles fan will attest, but it does lead to some succulent quotes not typical of the owning class. "I think what’s worse is that, once again, the U.S., this huge colossus, the strongest country in the world, is picking on this tiny, little country of 11 million," Angelos said. "And, this time, for what? For their participation in an international baseball event? That seems to me that it makes us look like the big, bad bully that our non-admirers say we look like."
In a later interview Angelos said, "It’s not financial. It’s a continuation of a vendetta against one who rightly or wrongly defied our administration over the years. As far as the sport is concerned and the hierarchy of Major League Baseball, it’s hard for them to act in defiance of a directive out of DC." Angelos is absolutely right. This is the politics of the vendetta. Major League Baseball and the players union has expressed their intention to fight the ban, but given the thrashing they have taken in Congress over steroids, don’t expect anything too robust.
Ironically, this is being celebrated on talk radio, by the same forces that tell players like the New York Mets’ Carlos Delgado to "just shut up" anytime they try to speak out on off-the-field issues. When athletes express their opinions about racism, poverty or war, they are told that "politics" has no place in sports. I suppose it all depends what "politics" are expressed — and for whose benefit.
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" is published by Haymarket Books. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.