Castro's Shadow Looms Over the Cuban Team

By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, March 7 -- On Sunday evening, in the grand Palace of the Revolution in Havana, President Fidel Castro gathered Cuba's national baseball team and recounted his days as a player and his adoration for the sport. Then Castro issued a challenge, according to an account in a Cuban newspaper.

"This is a country of honor and respect because we know how to fight with honor and dignity," he told them. "We are confident in the quality of men that you are and in your honor and firmness."

He then looked at each of his players and said, "I leave you with the words of Che [Guevara]: 'Struggle until victory forever!' "

With those words ringing in their ears, the Cubans -- winners of the 2004 Olympic gold medal and the 2005 World Cup -- boarded a plane the next morning for Puerto Rico to prepare for their opener Wednesday against Panama in the first round of the World Baseball Classic.

Their participation in the WBC was in question until January, when the Treasury Department granted Cuba a license to participate after it agreed to give all of its proceeds from the tournament to Hurricane Katrina relief. The inaugural 16-team tournament likely would have collapsed without Cuba, clearly the most mysterious and intriguing team in the field.

"We've seen the quality of these other players," said 21-year-old infielder Yulieski Gourriel, who may be Cuba's best young player. "I think they play with other objectives in mind than we do. One thing that separates us from them is the unity we have on our team."

When asked what objectives he meant, Gourriel responded: "They rent themselves. We play for the love of the name across our jerseys and our cities. They are professionals and we are amateurs."

Kevin M. Hallinan, Major League Baseball's director of security, monitored the team's arrival Monday at the El San Juan Hotel. He said no special preparations were made for the Cuban team, though the police presence contradicted him. More than 100 police officers and security guards, some in plain clothes, were stationed in every corner of the hotel and they all stirred when word came that the Cuban team had arrived. One hotel employee, who had been working when several major league teams had visited San Juan to play against the Montreal Expos, remarked, "I've never seen this type of security before."

The team was brought in through a service entrance, where players stepped out of green and white buses wearing blue blazers and ties with gray slacks. They checked into a bungalow in an isolated area of the hotel and only were seen again when they had lunch an hour or so after their arrival. A brigade of 15 to 20 officers followed them. Hallinan was part of the group.

"Of course this is a special circumstance," said Col. Carlos Haddock Roman of the Puerto Rican police. "We have guaranteed them their safety."

At a workout Tuesday at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, reporters were allowed to speak to just three players and were warned not to ask any political questions, and certainly none that involved defections, though one journalist did.

"We will never betray our commander," star outfielder Osmany Urrutia said.

The issue of defection becomes complicated here in Puerto Rico, where according to the latest census approximately 20,000 Cuban-born people reside.

"The issue of defection is an issue because of the regime of Cuba and not because they are here," said Carlos Garcia, the Puerto Rican-based director of the Cuban American National Foundation. If they defect, "that's their choice. They need to look for opportunities in the world like you and I. If they do that, we'll be here to help them. We're not going to do what Castro does. They have freedom of choice here."

Castro's presence is palpable. Among the 65 Cubans who were granted visas by the State Department for the tournament is Antonio Castro Soto del Valle, one of the dictator's sons, who is listed as a trainer for the team. It also is palpable in the practice jerseys worn by players, which bear no name and number, marking the importance of the team concept preached by the Cuban government.

The Cubans would very much like to face the United States, said team spokesman Pedro Cabrera, which would only happen if the teams reach the final in San Diego.

"It would be a classic within a classic," Cabrera said.

It seems highly unlikely Castro would be there to deliver another impassioned speech to his players.

"You think," Cabrera said, "Mr. [George] Bush would invite him?"

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