HAVANA (July 12, 2001) — WHAT most impressed Dennis Wheelus, trainer of the Florence Panthers, the women’s junior softball team, was the friendship that the Cuban softball players showed towards his team.
Wheelus said he felt honoured by the invitation of the Cuban Olympic team to play four games with his team. For this coach, the biggest moment was when the two teams intermixed to play a few innings and the Cubans, who have more experience, began to give his girls pointers as if they had played together all their lives. He stated that the Cubans are very advanced in their level and during this week, his players really learned how to play softball.
The Florence Panthers won a one-week trip to Cuba after winning the regional championship in Disney World, Florida, in which 19 teams participated.
The U.S. players see themselves as ambassadors of the U.S. people, who want to be friends with the Cubans, explained Joe Griffin, sponsor of the group.
However, these young women, who are students of different high schools, came to Cuba with apprehensions.
Wheelus explained how none of them really knew how Cubans would feel about dealing with U.S. citizens. From what they had seen on television, they thought Cubans hated them. He admitted that now they know it is not true.
Jessica Lynn, a 16-year-old from South Florida High School and second base for the Florence Panthers, enjoyed the game played in Havana. She was happy with the opportunity to come to Cuba and strengthen her game by playing against the Cubans because, in her opinion, they are very good. She recognized that the majority of the people from her country do not really know what Cuba is like and when she returns home, she plans to tell her classmates what she saw here.
Seventeen year-old Rachael Marie, a student at Hartsville School, laughed as she imagined the expression on her friends’ faces when she tells them about her conversation with Cubans her age. When asked what was said, her response was that they’d talked about softball, family, and teenager things.
Megan Shirley, 16, from South Florida High School, confessed she’d been a little scared by her friends, who told her she was going to a communist country. She admits she was afraid, but her fear has disappeared since arriving in Cuba. Megan now believes the people are kind, nice and not at all hostile.
THE BLOCKADE MUST BE LIFTED BECAUSE IT HARMS PEOPLE
Joe Griffin, sponsor of the Florence Panthers, confessed his nervousness before coming to Cuba. He didn’t know how they would be treated being from the United States. When asked how he feels here, he responded with laughter that because of the Elián González case, they imagined Cubans would be hostile to them, although he always believed that the boy should return with his family.
Griffin, who has sponsored the team for over 10 years, said that the first thing he would explain upon returning to the United States was the necessity to lift the blockade, which only hurts the people.
In their own way, the Florence Panthers team is going to make their own small contribution to the effort to end the blockade. Griffin explained that the team brought 500 pounds of softball equipment to help Cuba, which they know is needed, especially for the provinces.
The trainer wasn’t concerned about the result of the match. According to Wheelus, human relations are what matter. Upon returning to the United States, he plans to speak with his congressman and tell him that what he hears about Cuba is false and that they should attempt to eliminate the barriers existing between the two countries.
Miguel Acosta, president of the Cuban Softball Federation, received the donation, while Cuban shortstop Yunesis Castillo declared that her teammates and she dreamed about playing the U.S. women’s national team.
Castillo stated that they played very friendly matches, but they’re young and still have a lot to learn. When the teams were intermixed, they were divided up normally. Her team has nothing against the people of the United States and this has nothing to do with politics or their government. They are now eager to play against the national U.S. team, which she considers the best in the world. Wheelus promised to write letters to his federation to examine the possibility of such a match.
The coach declared that he didn’t understand why friendly matches are not played between the teams of the two countries, since it would benefit both countries. As a coach, he plans to send a letter to the federation so that one day such matches are held.