Venezuela asks to replace Puerto Rico as Group C site

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela offered to host part of next year's World Baseball Classic in place of Puerto Rico and suggested moving the final to Canada, proposals aimed at keeping Cuba in the 16-team tournament.

Such an arrangement would open the way for communist-led Cuba to participate in the first World Cup-style baseball tournament. Cuba is banned from playing on U.S. soil, and Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth.

"We hope that the United States government changes its position," Edwin Zerpa, president of the government-run Venezuelan Baseball Federation, said Wednesday. "But, if not, we propose that Group C play in Caracas. We don't approve of Cuba's exclusion."

Only teams in Group C -- Olympic champion Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Netherlands and Panama -- would be invited to play in Venezuela, with the final in Canada, Zerpa told The Associated Press by telephone.

The tournament will run March 3-20 in the United States, Puerto Rico and Japan. The semifinals and final are scheduled to be played in San Diego.

The U.S. Treasury Department has rejected Cuba's tournament application, apparently because of concerns that Fidel Castro's government could enjoy financial gain by participating.

Major League Baseball and its union -- the tournament organizers -- reapplied to the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. That office's permission is required under federal regulations governing transactions with Cuba, which has been under a U.S. trade and financial embargo for more than four decades.

The Cuban Baseball Federation has said any money earned by its national team would be donated to Hurricane Katrina victims.

Venezuela plays in the first round in Group D in Kissimmee, Fla., with Australia, Italy and the Dominican Republic. Canada plays in Group B in Arizona with the United States, Mexico and South Africa.

Venezuela, counting on a lineup featuring All-Stars Miguel Cabrera of the Florida Marlins and Bobby Abreu of the Philadelphia Phillies, is considered among the top teams. Johan Santana of the Minnesota Twins and Freddy Garcia of the White Sox most likely will pitch for Venezuela, which will be managed by New York Yankees coach Luis Sojo.