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Jewish World Review Dec. 22, 2005/ 21 Kislev, 5766

Nat Hentoff

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Major League Baseball's foul ball | Next March, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association will sponsor the first World Baseball Classic, an 18-day tournament to which teams from 16 countries have been invited. Among them was Cuba, the same Cuba identified by our State Department as a sponsor of terrorism. Indeed, Fidel Castro, who accepted the invitation, terrorizes Cuban citizens, most of whose crimes are to yearn for, and organize, democracy.

MLB commissioner Allan "Bud" Selig should have paid attention to Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who gave The New York Sun some very pertinent information about the Cuban team Selig has invited to the tournament: "Castro uses baseball as a propaganda vehicle, and surrounds Cuban players with round-the-clock security so they are unable to defect to the U.S."

Selig should also heed what Ros-Lehtinen says about Castro's ruthless methods: "Castro also forces the families of players to stay on the island to ensure that the athletes will come back. They are not free to decide their fate."

MLB spokesman Richard Levin explained to Sun reporter Meghan Clyne that Cuba was chosen for this prestigious international event because of the quality of its baseball program. But, as for the mounting criticism of the invitation, Levin said blithely, "In our view, this is an athletic event, not a political event."

The terrorizing Cuban dictator disagrees. During a recent five-hour speech on Cuban television — a concise talk for Castro — he spoke of the World Baseball Classic's tribute to Cuban athletes while excoriating those Cuban players now in our big leagues who have left the country to be free. Should they return, of course, they would be locked into Castro's gulags for so many years that their playing days would be over — if indeed they even lived through the prisons' brutal, dehumanizing conditions.

As a union man — I organized the first labor union in a small chain of Boston candy stores when I was 15 — I am dismayed that the MLB Players Association has joined in this invitation to the captive members of the Cuban baseball team.

Among Castro's prisoners of conscience — Amnesty International's term — in the dictator's cells for long terms are former labor organizers in Cuba who committed the crime of trying to create free organizations of workers.

Did the MLB Players Association conduct a vote of its membership before providing the Cuban dictator with this chance to show the world that he is indeed in good standing with America's baseball team owners and players? And what about the other U.S. union leaders, in and out of the fractured AFL-CIO? This would be a good time for them to show solidarity — not with Castro, but with their brothers, the imprisoned labor organizers, in Cuba.

Another Congressman, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., has a logical suggestion for Selig. In a letter to the MLB commissioner, according to The New York Sun — and largely ignored by the media — Diaz-Balart wrote:

"It is difficult to believe, Mr. Selig, that Major League Baseball would have invited a team from apartheid-era South Africa to participate in a tournament. Yet you have invited a totalitarian dictatorship which has murdered thousands and imprisoned hundreds of thousands for the 'crime' of supporting freedom and democracy."

Continuing, the congressman gave Selig an option, noting that during the 2005 MLB season here, "there were 22 Cubans or Cuban-Americans on major league rosters, and 62 such players on minor league rosters. Surely such Cubans can form a team to compete for their home country ... in the World Baseball Classic." After all, that tournament will include not only a team from Communist China, but also a team of players from Taiwan. This alternative has found no support from Major League Baseball, and it would be rejected furiously by dictator Fidel. However, it now looks as if Castro's official team will itself be rejected because some funds from the tournament are to go to participating countries, and the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the U.S. embargo against Castro, will not give that license to Cuba.

Major League Baseball and the players union are working to reverse that decision. But what a message to people around the world striving for freedom it would be if a team of free Cubans were to take the field in the World Baseball Classic. A number of Cuban players in this country are eager to do just that.

Meanwhile, in Cuba, The New York Sun reports: "Amid a surging wave of repression, Cuba's prisoners of conscience are resorting to 'acts of desperation' — including hunger strikes, suicide attempts and self-mutilation — in a cry for international recognition and solidarity."

But Major League Baseball refuses to respect the desperate courage of these authentic freedom fighters.

Have Selig and the Major League Baseball Players Association no sense of shame?

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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