Treasury Department allows Cuba into WBC

NEW YORK -- The Bush administration is letting Cuba play ball.

The Cubans will be allowed to participate in the inaugural World
Baseball Classic after the U.S. government reversed course Friday
and issued the special license necessary for the communist nation
to play in the 16-team tournament.

Major League Baseball's first application was denied in mid-December by the
Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, but the
commissioner's office and the players' association reapplied Dec.
22 after Cuba said it would donate any profits it receives to
victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"The president wanted to see it resolved in a positive way,"
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in an e-mail to The
Associated Press. "Our concerns were centered on making sure that
no money was going to the Castro regime and that the World Baseball
Classic would not be misused by the regime for spying. We believe
the concerns have been addressed."

The license was required by 45-year-old American sanctions
against Cuba designed to prevent Fidel Castro's government from
receiving U.S. currency. At the State Department, spokesman Sean
McCormack said the initial rejection was based on concerns Cuban
spies might accompany the team.

"Working closely with World Baseball Classic Inc. and the State
Department, we were able to reach a licensable agreement that
upholds both the legal scope and the spirit of the sanctions,"
Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said. "This agreement
ensures that no funding will make its way into the hands of the
Castro regime."

After the initial rejection, the International Baseball
Federation threatened to withdraw its sanction of the tournament if
Cuba was not allowed to participate. International Olympic
Committee president Jacques Rogge said this week that any future
U.S. bids to host the Olympics would have to ensure there would be
no restrictions on participating nations.

Paul Archey, a senior vice president of Major League Baseball
International, and union lawyer Doyle Pryor went to Cuba on Jan. 10
and 11 to negotiate terms of Cuba's participation that would be
acceptable to the Bush administration.

"Everybody involved in the tournament wanted the best teams in
the world to be involved, and certainly Cuba is one of those
teams," U.S. manager Buck Martinez said. "Everybody feels pretty
confident this is now really going to be a test of the best teams
in the world."

Puerto Rico threatened to withdraw as a host site if Cuba wasn't
allowed to participate.

"We were always positive," said Antonio Munoz, the promoter
who paid millions of dollars to stage the first two rounds in San
Juan. "There were some negative people, but they were wrong in the

Juan Marichal, the only Dominican in the Baseball Hall of Fame, is happy with the outcome.

"I'm glad that they allowed the Cubans to play," Marichal told ESPN. "I'm glad -- and I hope we beat them badly because that way they know that amateur players are not in the same class, not in the the same category, of professionals baseball players."

The tournament, the first in which the world's top players will
participate on national teams, runs from March 3-20. The other 15
teams submitted their 60-man preliminary rosters earlier this week.

Cuba won the Olympic gold medal in 1992, 1996 and 2004, and the
United States won in 2000. Olympic baseball initially was limited
to amateur players, but even after professionals were allowed in
for the 2000 Sydney Games, major leaguers didn't take part because
baseball doesn't stop its regular season for the Olympics.

Cuba's roster is not expected to include defectors, such as Jose Contreras, Orlando Hernandez and Livan Hernandez.

"With Cuba's entry in the tournament approved, the World
Baseball Classic promises to be an historic event and will
guarantee our fans the greatest possible competition among the best
players in the world," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said.

Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens are among the big-name players on the U.S. roster, and Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols and Vladimir Guerrero are on the Dominican team. Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Japan also are expected to be top teams at the tournament.

Cuba is in Group B with Panama, Puerto Rico and the Netherlands,
playing its first-round games in San Juan. If they advance, the
Cubans also would play their second-round games in San Juan.

"Cuba will step up, of that I have no doubt," said Ramon
Enriquez, who was among baseball fans discussing the news at
Havana's Parque Central. "Those boys will play with that
all-consuming courage."

Other first-round sites include Kissimmee, Fla.; Phoenix;
Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Tokyo. Second-round games also will be
played in Anaheim, Calif., and the semifinals and final will be in
San Diego.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, called the
Bush administration's reversal "lamentable and unfortunate," and
said the Cuban players should defect once they reach Puerto Rico.

"I hope that the Cuban players will use this opportunity to
escape totalitarianism and reach freedom in the U.S.," said
Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.