Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora can't name anyone on Cuba's national team, but that doesn't mean he's unfamiliar with the country's baseball legacy.
"I know their reputation and they are all good," Mora said yesterday when told that Cuba has received a license from the U.S. Treasury Department and will be able to play in March's inaugural World Baseball Classic. "They always play good baseball in Cuba, and I'd love to play against them."
Mora, who will represent Venezuela in the 16-country tournament, can't face Cuba until the second round of the 17-day Classic, which starts March 3 in Tokyo and continues at various locations until wrapping up with the final March 20 in San Diego.
Because of the way the bracket is set up, the United States wouldn't play against Cuba until the final - if both advance that far. But the communist country's inclusion in the tournament isn't lost on the U.S. representatives.
"I think it's great they have been included. I'm glad the political aspects have been addressed," said Orioles TV announcer Buck Martinez, who will manage the U.S. team. "There have been some very serious sanctions for a long time now, and no one takes that lightly. At the same time, Cuba has been in world baseball tournaments in the past and everyone wants to see the world's best competing. And with [Cuba's] inclusion in the tournament I think [the world's best] will be determined."
The Treasury Department approved Cuba's license yesterday after rejecting it in mid-December because U.S. laws prohibit certain commercial and financial transactions with Fidel Castro's communist country. But Major League Baseball and its players union reapplied after Cuba promised to donate any profits to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
"This agreement ensures that no funding will make its way into the hands of the Castro regime," Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise told the Associated Press. "The Treasury is pleased to now be able to issue this license and looks forward to seeing all of the teams showcase their talents on the international stage."
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who is considered the mastermind behind the tournament, couldn't have been happier.
"The federal government thoughtfully and diligently helped us bring the application process to a successful conclusion," Selig said in a prepared statement. "Now, 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."
Cuba won the gold medal at the Summer Olympics in 1992, 1996 and 2004, but the last time the Cubans played against a group of major leaguers was in 1999, when Cuba's national team and the Orioles had home-and-home contests. The teams split the games, with the Orioles winning, 3-2, in Havana in March and Cuba winning, 12-6, at Camden Yards in May.
That series was engineered, in large part, by Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who believes the United States needs to relax its rules to allow citizens of both countries to have free movement between them. Often critical of the current presidential administration, Angelos applauded the Treasury Department's decision yesterday.
"In this instance, I am pleased to see the present administration has changed its viewpoint and will allow the games to go forward and, for this, I congratulate them," Angelos said. "This could lead, ultimately, to the removal of the barriers for the citizens of our country and Cuba."
In 1999, there was concern that the series would cause defections by the Cuban team once they came to Baltimore. That didn't happen, though several players on that club later defected, including star pitcher Jose Contreras, who helped the Chicago White Sox win the 2005 World Series.
The defection issue is still something officials will have to monitor, Martinez said.
"I'm sure the Cuban federation is very aware of that, very sensitive of that," Martinez said. "They have lost a lot of great players in the past and they don't want to lose any more. I'm sure they will take precautions to make sure everyone goes home with them."
Cuba will play its first-round games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, against Panama, the Netherlands and Puerto Rico. If they finish in the top two, the Cubans will play their second-round games in San Juan - and then would have a chance to advance to San Diego.
After Cuba's initial rejection by the U.S. government, the International Baseball Federation threatened to withdraw its sponsorship and Puerto Rico threatened to withdraw as a host.
That no longer is an issue.
"We were always positive," Antonio Munoz, the Puerto Rican promoter, told the Associated Press. "There were some negative people, but they were wrong in the end. I always said there was no Plan B."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.