Cuba Cheers Win In First World Classic

Guillermo Mederos celebrates in La Terraza bar in Cojimar near Havana, Cuba after Cuba defeated the Dominican Republic 3-1 in a World Baseball Classic semifinal game, Saturday, March 18,2006.(AP Photo/ Javier Galeano)
Cubans were glued to their television sets for four solid hours on Saturday as they watched Team Cuba beat the heavily favored Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic semi-finals, reports CBS's Havana correspondent Portia Siegelbaum.

After the home team's unlikely 3-1 victory, Cuban baseball fans rushed into the streets shouting "Long Live Cuba!" and forming conga lines. Some ecstatic fans waved their nation's red, white and blue flags. Others beat pots and pans.

The victory was twice as sweet because the team almost didn't get to participate.

The communist nation was originally barred from playing in this inaugural World Baseball Classic. The team's application was denied in mid-December by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control because of 45-year-old American sanctions against Cuba designed to prevent Fidel Castro's government from receiving U.S. currency. The State Department was also concerned that Cuban spies might accompany the team.

But, after worldwide pressure and a promise from Cuba to donate any profits it receives to victims of Hurricane Katrina, the State Department decided to allow the Cuban team to play.

Baseball is the most popular game on this island of 11.5 million people and for Cubans making it to the final of the first World Baseball Classic is a victory of amateur baseball over professional money driven sports. One of the team's biggest supporters is President Fidel Castro. His son - Antonio Castro Soto del Valle, an orthopedic surgeon - is the team doctor.

Saturday's game was 0-0 until the sixth inning when the Cubans slipped up and allowed the Dominicans to score their first run, Siegelbaum reports. But, cheers broke out across the city as Cubans gained the lead in the top of the seventh.

In some neighborhoods people emerged from their homes or stood on their balconies at the end of the game to call excitedly to their neighbors.

Huge roars of delight echoed into the streets from bars where people watched the game on state television, which carried the ESPN signal live across the island.

The few cars still on the streets when the game ended honked their horns, and Cuban flags fluttered out of the windows of a few.

"The gold's coming here!" fan Fernando Luis shouted out into the street after watching the game on a television set up on an apartment terrace.

"I am so emotional," Ines Padilla, mother of Cuban center fielder Carlos Tabares, said after watching the game at the family's Havana home. "I bless my son and I tell you that his late father is with him."

Many of Cuba's other well-known athletes were celebrating as well.

"Yes, I do think we will win the Classic," said retired high jumper Javier Sotomayor, a world record holder and Olympic champion. "But it will be harder for them now because they will be more relaxed and have tremendous confidence."

Just five days earlier, the Cubans suffered a 7-3 loss to the Dominicans, who had an all-star roster including clean up hitter David Ortiz.

On Saturday, Cuban state media reported that Castro — himself a big baseball fan — had sent congratulations to the national team in San Diego for having reached the semifinals.

The Cuban team will face Japan in the finals Monday night.