Thursday, Mar. 9, 2006
Biggest Fan: If you want to know why George Bush's approval rating is at 34 percent, do what he's probably doing: turn on ESPN to watch the World Baseball Classic. So far this year, getting Cuba to play in the WBC is Bush's biggest domestic-policy achievement, as well as the poster child for his oft-misplaced and all-too-often-absent attentions.
The WBC is Major League Baseball's attempt to bring some of the enthusiasm of the Olympics and the World Cup to what has long been seen as America's pastime. The concept suffers from the same flaw as Olympic hockey: The favorites are well-stocked with major-leaguers who live in America. But sometimes gods don't answer fastballs, as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriquez, and Team USA showed last night in losing to the happy hosers from Canada. If Mexico beats Canada tonight (while scoring two runs or less), the Americans will be eliminated in the first round of our own tournament—and sent back to spring training to dodge the press with Barry Bonds or party with Bode Miller.
Even if Team USA rallies, most Americans aren't about to confuse next round's likely showdown between South Korea and Canada with March Madness. But in the handful of nations that give beisbol its proper due, the Classic could prove over time to be as fierce a rivalry as the Cricket World Cup.
Two months ago, it looked like the World Baseball Classic might not happen. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control—not to be confused with Treasury's infamous Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States—had denied the Cuban team's application to take part on the grounds that any money Cuba made from the games would violate U.S. sanctions. Baseball's international governing body responded by saying, "No Cuba, no Classic."
In most administrations, the story would probably end there. Major League Baseball would plead with Treasury to make an exception; Cuban-Americans would pitch a fit to prevent it. But unless spy planes uncovered nuclear missiles primed to attack us if Cuba couldn't play in the WBC, the president would have ignored the whole thing and devoted his precious time to winning more pressing games, like the war on terror.
But this is no ordinary time, and George Bush is no ordinary president. Bush intervened with Treasury to force a face-saving compromise: Cuba could play, as long as its share of WBC revenue went to victims of Hurricane Katrina. As the New York Times reported in January ($):
Administration officials said the reversal of the position came after the president became directly involved. As a former partner in the Texas Rangers, he knew, they said, that there were ways to organize the high-profile games without aiding the government of Fidel Castro. "The president wanted to see the matter resolved in a positive way," said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "Our concerns were making sure that no money was going to the Castro regime, and that the World Baseball Classic would not be used by the regime for espionage. We believe those concerns have been addressed."
As John Dickerson has pointed out, White House officials regularly try to make Bush sound more engaged than he really is. But they had no reason to spin this incident. Politically, his handlers would be in no rush to credit the president for personally intervening to alienate his Cuban-American base. Moreover, the last thing the White House wants Middle America to think is that Bush spends his time compromising his principles to help out the commissioner of baseball.
So, if the NSC says giving Cuba an intentional pass was the president's idea, I believe them.