The Cuban national baseball team celebrates after winning the gold medal in 2004. (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
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We have just received the first score from the World Baseball Classic:
Baseball 1, Politics 0.
Happy days are here again. The U.S. Treasury Department has reversed its position and decided not to ban Cuba's participation in the Classic. This decision will meet with opposition among those who are fervently anti-Castro. But it will meet with good will among those who are fervently pro-baseball.
Treasury's initial ruling was based on the long-held US economic sanctions against Cuba. The Cuban government did the right thing and the politically astute thing in response, vowing to donate whatever proceeds it received from this event to Hurricane Katrina victims.
Major League Baseball appealed the earlier Treasury ruling and Friday received word that Cuba would be allowed to participate. Now, the Classic field of 16 is set and the tournament can go forward, beginning on Mar. 3.
The debate on this issue was political in some quarters, but from a baseball standpoint Cuba's participation should not have been debatable. Apart from the obvious quality of players who have defected from Cuba to become Major League stars, Cuba has been a powerhouse in international baseball competition. It has won three of the four Olympic gold medals in baseball since the sport became a medal competition in 1992.
Certainly, Cuba will face much more difficult competition in the Classic than it did in any of those Olympics. But there can be no question that Cuba is among the 16 leading baseball nations in the world, Castro or not.
This is not a referendum on whether or not Fidel Castro is a suitable leader. But it should also not be a question of whether Americans are still upset about the Cuban missile crisis.
If you start applying political and/or historical standards to determine who is allowed to play in a sporting event, you turn a baseball tournament into a political football. On these grounds, you could eliminate almost everybody. We had serious problems with Cuba in the early 1960s? Well, we had even more serious difficulties with Japan in the early 1940s. Italy, too, began on the wrong side of that conflict. South Africa? All those years of apartheid, can't have it, either. Venezuela has a president making distinctly anti-American comments. After a while, what you'd be left with is us and Canada. Might as well make it a hockey tournament.
When the ban on Cuban participation was first announced, the belief in some quarters was that the Bush administration was merely playing to some -- but not all -- of the Cuban exiles now living and voting in south Florida. Happily, this issue has been resolved on broader terms.
The Cubans are good enough at baseball to be included in this tournament. As no less a baseball icon than Henry Aaron put it earlier this week:
"I hope that these (Cuban) kids are given an opportunity, let me just put it that way. I hope that they are given an opportunity to play. Whatever happened before, 10 or 15 years ago, they had nothing to do with it. I just hope that they get an opportunity to compete, because they really deserve it. They've got some great ballplayers in Cuba."
That issue, not whether we found Fidel Castro to be sufficiently to our liking, was the only issue that should have mattered. In the end, it did.
Yes, Cuba's participation will be good for business. There will be considerable interest in determining how the Cubans stack up against the very best level of competition. But more than this, the decision to allow Cuba to participate in the World Baseball Classic will be good for baseball. And the record clearly shows, does it not, that what has been good for baseball has typically been good for America.