News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 11, 2006

Pete Chalos: Use baseball classic to unite us, not further divide us

By Pete Chalos

No sound is more exciting than the crack of a baseball bat hitting the ball. It’s quite an experience to watch your favorite team score that winning run in the bottom of the ninth or pull off a double-play to ensure their victory. The crowd roars and stands to its feet. The winning team’s dugout empties onto the field. It’s no wonder they call baseball the Great American Pastime.

It was the 1950s and Harry Truman was president. A young college player with curly hair and a great fastball stepped up to the plate. Strike three! Another victory! He thought the Yankees would draft him for sure. As fortune would have it, they passed him by. Returning to his native country of Cuba, Fidel Castro decided to give politics a try. His presidency would span four decades. Just think, if he’d have had a better fastball there may have never been a Cuban Missile Crisis or a Bay of Pigs.

Last month, shortly before Christmas, Fidel Castro expressed outrage that the Olympic (1992, 1996, 2004) and world champion Cuban baseball team was being denied the right to participate in the first World Cup-style baseball tournament by the Bush administration.

Castro spoke out against President Bush on the second day of Cuba’s National Assembly. “He is very much a fool,” said Castro. “He doesn’t know who the Cuban baseball players are, or that they are Olympic and world champions. If he knew, he would know something about this country’s government.”

The “World Baseball Classic” is a 16-team tournament scheduled for March 3-20 in Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. commonwealth, and Japan. The semifinals and final will take place in San Diego.

Cuba’s ban from playing on U.S. soil is due to the longtime U.S. economic embargo on Cuba. The Cuban team needed a special license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to participate in the tournament but the Treasury Department rejected Cuba’s application for such a license because of concerns that Castro’s government would experience financial gain.

The decision to prohibit the Cuban team from competing in the tournament brought protests from the U.S. Olympic Committee and Major League Baseball. Also, Puerto Rico’s baseball federation announced that it would not host the tournament if the Cuban team was prohibited from competing.

Major League Baseball has reapplied for a license since the Cuban Baseball Federation announced that any profit gained by the team from its participation in the tournament would be donated to Hurricane Katrina victims.

This whole situation reminds me of when President Carter boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics during the Cold War era. A young gymnast from Indiana State University named Kurt Thomas was scheduled to compete in those Olympics but missed his chance.

Does prohibiting young athletes from competing in games meant to inspire goodwill between nations really make the kind of statement that our political leaders hope to make? Is prohibiting Cuba from competing in the first World Baseball Classic going to inspire them to cooperate with us more or cooperate with us less? Will it endear us to the citizens of Cuba or alienate them from us?

Sometimes, being hard-nosed toward your enemies just adds fuel to the fire. Proverbs 30:33 says, “Surely the churning of milk bringeth forth butter, and the wringing of the nose bringeth forth blood: so the forcing of wrath bringeth forth strife.”

There are times when you need to be firm and enforce strict policy but our nation’s leaders should never close the door to opportunities that could inspire goodwill, friendship and peaceful resolutions between nations.

Sports have been used to bring people together since the beginning of time. The Bush administration should be taking advantage of the opportunity to build a bridge to Havana instead of widening the gulf between our two nations. Let’s enjoy the tournament together in the spirit of friendship rather than the spirit of enmity.

Pete Chalos, a longtime teacher, coach and public servant in Vigo County, was mayor of Terre Haute for 16 years. Send e-mail to pchalos@netscape.com.