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   Cuba Upset with Baseball's Exclusion From the Olympics
 
   Published on: September 11, 2009
 
HAVANA (AP)- No longer able to dream about winning Olympic gold medals, Cuban baseball players now must settle for a consolation prize: gold in the Baseball World Cup.

Cuban players and officials enter the 22-team tournament- Cuba opens against Puerto Rico on Thursday in Barcelona- still seething over a decision by the International Olympic Committee's executive board not to reinstate baseball to the schedule for the 2016 Summer Games. Instead, the IOC is recommending golf and rugby sevens.

Members of Cuba's national baseball team are sorely needed heroes at home and emissaries of the communist government abroad. So nearly every Cuban sees the loss of baseball as a bad cal" by the IOC.

"An unforgivable injustice," says Christian Jimenez, president of Cuba's National Sports Institute. "All that matters, once again, is the economic benefit, the money."

Added national team manager Esteban Lombillo: "In our judgment it can't be the Olympics without baseball."

Baseball's World Cup is hardly the Olympics. But the tournament, being played through Sept. 27 in seven countries across Europe, does feature all of the world's top baseball-playing countries _ though not all the best players. It's also a chance for Cuba to win its first international championship since 2007.

Cuba managed silver in the 2008 Olympics, losing the final to South Korea.

Team captain and left fielder Frederich Cepeda won gold in the Athens Olympics and silver in Beijing. He's also played in other international tournaments _ including the World Baseball Classic, which showcases Major League Baseball players. He says nothing compares to the Olympics.

"It's a reckless decision," the 28-year-old said before an intersquad game under a sweltering sun at Havana's fabled Estadio Latinoamerico. "I don't know what whim it was that removed the game from the Olympics. They're eliminating a very beautiful sport."

Yulieski Gourriel, a 24-year-old infielder who also played in Athens and Beijing, wasn't shy about blaming IOC president Jacques Rogge, who once played rugby on a national level for his native Belgium.

"He simply doesn't like the game of baseball," Gourriel said.

Though baseball officially is an amateur game here- Fidel Castro banished pro sports in 1961- Cuba's players are venerated as heroes, and are expected to perform as such. The cash-strapped government spares nothing to prepare the squad, and Olympic medals still symbolize the success of the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power.

Cuba's dominance has been challenged in recent years by defections, emerging powers in Asia and Europe and, in some domestic quarters, by what's seen as lack of discipline.

Cuban officials, and some fans, insist that TV ratings and revenue trumped baseball's culture in the Olympic decision. Eduard Martin, manager of the Villa Clara province team, suggested the games could be shortened to better accommodate TV.

"I am hurt, as a trainer and as a dedicated manager for more than 30 years. I think it's got to be resolved somehow," said Martin, who last season led his team to the National Series, Cuba's equivalent of the World Series.

Martin Chacon Perez, a 48-year-old taxi driver, also believes the Olympic call came down to time and money. Watching the intersquad game from a worn, wooden seat, Perez said that he thought the duration of baseball games no longer is suited to the demands for high TV ratings abroad.

"In my opinion, it's the delays during the game," he said. "The capitalists want more advertising, and that affects them."

Harvey Schiller, president of the International Baseball Federation, told member nations in an August letter that it isn't worth trying to get the sport back in the Olympics again. The IOC, he said, sent "a clear message that despite any changes we make, we are not part of their plan."

Added Omar Linares, the former third baseman considered perhaps Cuba's greatest player: "The dream of every athlete is to be an Olympic champion. They're taking our dream away."

Last month, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez labeled golf "a bourgeois sport" and suggested a city course ought to be expropriated to make room for housing. Cuban Vice President Jose Ramon Fernandez, president of the national Olympic Committee, has declared golf "a sport for the elite."

Johan Bager Vega describes himself as Cuba's only "golf teacher" at the state-run Havana Golf Club, where greens fees run $32 per round _ nearly double the monthly state salary of under $20. A clubhouse sign warns players to beware of snakes and bees.

It's a 9-hole, par-70 (you play twice) in the capital's southern Industrial Boyeros neighborhood, founded by British diplomats in the 1940s. Getting there means taking a narrow road and dodging horse-drawn carts and dogs.

"There is no golf tradition. You have to start playing it from here," Vega said, stretching his hand out knee-high.

For him, golf's Olympic endorsement is "something that recognizes my work," he said. "But nobody knows I exist. You go into the countryside and people say, 'Golf? What is that?'"

 
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