Castro Calls Bush a 'Fool' for Keeping Baseball Team Out of Tournament

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro Friday came out swinging against President Bush, calling him a “fool” for keeping Cubans from playing in next year’s World Baseball Classic.

Castro told Cuba’s National Assembly in Havana that Bush is “very much a fool. He doesn’t know who the Cuban baseball players are, or that they are Olympic and world champions. If he knew, he would something about this country’s government.”

The U.S. Treasury Department last week rejected Cuba’s application to play. A Treasury Department official said, "Generally speaking, the Cuba embargo prohibits entering into contracts in which Cuba or Cuban nationals have an interest."

According to the law, the Cuban team needs a license from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, the department’s office that enforces the Cuban embargo, because Cuba could reap a financial benefit by having its team playing in the games.

The Treasury Department decision came as a result of a tightening of American trade and travel sanctions against Cuba in hopes of denying resources to the communist nation and making for political and economic changes once Castro is no longer in power.

It’s unknown how much money the Cuban baseball team might have earned by playing in the Classic. Tournament profits will largely be determined by how much its organizers can get for broadcast rights.

But the issue continues to mount. The Miami Herald reported Friday that a group of Cuban exile baseball players met with and then later received the backing of Florida Republican and staunchly anti-Castro Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart in their quest to play as the Cuba team in the tournament.

Four Cuban baseball players met with D???? ­az-Balart and told reporters they and up to 30 other expatriate Cuban players and Cuban Americans born in the United States want to win approval from the International Baseball Federation to compete as the Cuba team.

International rules say the Cuban exiles must win recognition as a federation. A group spokesman said they have enough people to form a team but could not provide a list of players.

Observers think their effort is a long shot.

”It would be very unusual for there to be two groups that have the designation from the international federation to manage that sport in a given country,” Darryl Seibel, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee told the Miami Herald. The U.S. Olympic Committee recognizes the same international certification procedures that will govern the baseball tournament.

Diaz-Balart thinks that having the Castro government team in the tournament would send the wrong message and deliver dollars to the Castro regime.

”They ask the union to represent the players and not be subservient to the interests of the [Castro] regime,” D???? ­az-Balart told the Miami Herald. “They are forming an association of Cuban professional baseball players to fight for ball players who have escaped tyranny.”

Meanwhile, Puerto Rican athletic officials want San Juan to withdraw as a host city if the Cuban team from the island is not allowed to play, complicating the politics behind the tournament.

New York Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano believes the Cubans from the Castro government should be allowed to play and accused the Bush administration of playing politics with the issue.

“Let’s leave the politics out of this,” Serrano said in a statement released by his office. “The World Baseball Classic should not be tainted by our grudge against Cuba’s government. Cuba produces some of the finest baseball talent in the world and they deserve to participate. Let’s let them play baseball so fans worldwide can enjoy this great tournament as it was meant to be.”

Serrano sent letters to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, Treasury Secretary John Snow and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urging them to allow the Castro Cubans to play. Serrano cited as precedent the Cuba baseball team’s participating in the Olympic Games in Atlanta less than 10 years ago. “There is a tradition, as exemplified by the Olympic Games, of encouraging international competition. In fact, Cuba participated in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Allowing Cuba’s participation in the World Baseball Classic follows this longstanding practice.”

“Let’s not take our complex international relationships to the baseball field, but instead let’s just enjoy the game and put sportsmanship over politics,” Serrano concluded.

The first World Baseball Classic will be an 18-day tournament in March, featuring 16 teams of mostly professional players from North and Latin America, Asia, Europe, Australia and Africa. The games would be played in the United States, Puerto Rico and Japan.

According to the tournament schedule, Cuba was to play its three first-round games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, facing Panama on March 7, the Netherlands on March 9 and Puerto Rico the following day. If the Cubans advanced, they would also have played their second-round games in Puerto Rico.