THEY CAME ON A GRAY, drizzly Sunday morning, on a bus from Canada after flying from Varadero, Cuba, following an 11-hour drive from the Cuban city of Holguin.
The people gathered at Conard High School in West Hartford, Conn., were expectant, anxious: They had visited Holguin themselves in April, and this was just the return trip in which they were the hosts, and the 12 Cuban kids — 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds — were strangers in a foreign land, all of them for the first time in their lives. With the bus came the hugs, the joyful tears, the smiles, the noise, the reencounters and the introductions.
After barely dusting off their shirts, a quick shower and breakfast provided by the hosts, the young ballplayers — Cubans and Americans — got onto another bus and headed for Boston to visit no other than Fenway Park, with its Green Monster and its Big Papi.
Introduced to the audience (the Cubans with their blue game jerseys and the Americans with their dark blue ones) and shown on the Jumbotron along with the likes of Red Sox greats Luis Tiant and Bill Lee (one Cuban, one American), the kids moved to the grandstand, where all of them were about to witness their first-ever Major League Baseball game. Fittingly, David Ortiz homered and the Red Sox won.
The next day, after an interesting morning in Elizabeth Park, where kids from both countries took things right from where they had left them in Cuba with a pickup Wiffle ball game, they moved to the University of Hartford, where things got a little bit more serious, as they played their first game. For the Cubans, it was the first time they stepped on artificial turf. Yet, that did not slow them down, and they ended up getting the victory with nearly the entire crowd cheering for their opponents. As a curious fact, some Latino members of the community, including some Cubans, came to Fiondela Field to cheer for them. Tiant —just as he did with the historic game of the Tampa Bay Rays against Cuba in Havana, with Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama in the stands — threw out the ceremonial first pitch alongside his longtime friend and rotation partner Lee.
The next day, the contingent departed very early in the morning from Conard High. The destination was no other than Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. They were welcomed in the place where every baseball player wants to be after retirement, and they were shown a sample of Cuban baseball, with the jersey worn by Cuban coach Rodolfo Puente during the 1999 Baltimore Orioles exhibition game against Cuba.
After attending an interesting presentation by Craig Muder, they made a symbolic stop at two important places: the shrine to Jackie Robinson and the plaque of Cuban legend Martin Dihigo, a Negro Leaguer who never played in the majors yet was the first Cuban to be voted into the Hall.
Aiming to break barriers themselves, the kids walked into Doubleday Field as the first Cuban team in history to play in one of the most hallowed baseball places in the world. And in perhaps the best game played by these two young teams, the Cubans came from behind for another victory. But the long faces of the Connecticut kids who visited Cuba in April were soon erased as they got together in left field for a group photo, some dancing and hugging. Even though they played as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, joy, friendship and love were the more important results of the game. The bond already was strong, these kids had been playing other kids with whom they were sharing their food, their homes and their families. At the end of the game, the groundskeepers had a nice gesture with the teams, giving handmade Cooperstown banners to both of them, while handing the U.S. team a base and the Cuban team a pitching rubber, both used in Doubleday Field the previous year.
The following day was clinic day, with the presence of Tiant, Lee and Canadian former major-league outfielder Ryan Radmanovich —who is familiar in Cuban households as a member of Team Canada in two nail-biter semifinal games, in the 1999 Winnipeg Pan Am Games and in the 2004 Athens Olympics — as well as Cuba’s head coach, Karel García, who won the National Championship with Holguin in 2002 as an utility defensive replacement and saved one playoff game by picking up a catcher’s bad throw as a substitute second baseman late in the game. García impressed everyone (including other assisting coaches) with his skill picking up grounders and making the transfer to the throwing hand.
After having lunch at the field, they moved to Eisenhower Pool to relax and then to Mark Twain House, where they not only got to hear the presentation by John Hassan before touring the house, but they also learned about the author’s link to baseball, and Cuba’s connection to Connecticut with the presence of Fordham University student and Cuban-born Esteban Bellán as the first Latin American player to play professional baseball in the United States with the Troy Haymakers.
That day’s game, at William H. Hall High School, against West Hartford Havoc — and the first time they counted on majority cheering, because their host families and their opponents from the previous games cheered for them — was perhaps the game of the tour, as they came back from a 9-0 deficit to tie the game, which was called due to darkness.
From that day on, the same kids who visited them and played them in Cuba, Hartford and Cooperstown would spend every game in the Cubans’ dugout, cheering for them, supporting them and sharing the excitement with them. From that day on, they were no longer strangers on a foreign land; they were at home, embraced by their new family.
Thursday was a bad baseball day for Team Cuba. Under the same weather that welcomed them at Conard High when they arrived, they took the field on Hyland Park — part of Cal Ripken Jr.’s RBI program — to face the team from Hartford. To their surprise, many of those kids had Latino backgrounds, and they played with exactly the same craftiness, passion and drive. The weather did not help them, as the sun never was seen during the game, and Hartford won, handing Cuba its first loss since the beginning of the USA/Cuba Goodwill Tours in April 2016.
The defeat did not kill their spirits, and after a nice lunch, they went to the Hartford Science Center, where they could relax a little bit by taking a look at the different advances in sports and physical activities, and also by visiting the space section. Afterwards, they headed to Frank Pepe’s Pizza, where both teams and the families were hosted by the owners of the place, who were kind enough to serve all different varieties of pizzas they had available so everyone could get at least a piece of each of them. It was a very interesting moment, because Cuban and American kids shared the table, and did exactly what every kid their age does: cause havoc.
The next morning, they had a great experience by visiting ESPN in Bristol. They had a chance to see how sports are broadcast and produced in a larger scale in the United States, while also visiting the very spot where “Baseball Tonight” is filmed. The ESPN tour guides were very helpful, and they made sure the Cuban kids and their coaching staff had a good time. The highlight of the visit was when they stood in front of a mural containing different phrases originated at ESPN, such as Ernesto Jerez’s popular home run call in Spanish, “NO… no, no, no, no no ¡Díganle que no a esa pelota!” — which is very well-known throughout all of Cuba.
Newington hosted them the next morning at Legends Field, with perhaps the most sui generisopening ceremony, as a local band played both “The StarSpangled Banner” and “El Himno de Bayamo.” With a day off the field after dropping one game to Hartford, they won yet another game and the hearts of the Newington locals, who cheered for both teams and hosted them for lunch, along with their host families and the U.S. team that visited Holguin … already part of the Cuban team themselves.
The last game was to be played in Glastonbury’s Riverfront Stadium (nothing to do with the old Cincinnati Reds’ ballfield in Ohio), and in very Cuban fashion, they came from behind yet again (although this time some power-hitting by them and not the errors by their opponents marked the day). The last inning was played under artificial lights, the first time the Cuban kids had such an experience, because artificial lights in Cuba are reserved only for the main league, the 23U or the 18U. They held on to their late-obtained lead to finish the tour with a 4-1-1 record.
A relaxation day in Lake Compounce before the last day capped an incredible experience for the Cuban entourage, which came to Connecticut to play baseball and ended up having an amazing experience, getting to know people from a different environment and forging bonds that time, distance, culture, language and politics won’t be able to break.
Dennis Woodworth, founder of the Canada/Cuba Goodwill Tour, and his counterpart in the United States, Tim Brennan, did an amazing job organizing, planning and hosting. This event proved that when there is a will, there is a way, and when there is goodwill, there are, as Woodworth says, “Good results.”
The highlight for the Cubans was not Fenway Park, Cooperstown nor ESPN, it was not the games they won or the incredible comeback that ended in a tie. No, it was the people they met, the bonds they created, and the family they left in Connecticut, forever and beyond.
*Reynaldo Cruz is the founder and head editor of the Cuban-based magazine Universo Béisbol, which is hosted in MLBlogs. He is a language graduate of the University of Holguin, in his hometown. A SABR member since the summer of 2014, he writes, translates and photographs baseball and was in the first row of the historic game in Havana attended by President Obama, shooting from the Tampa Bay Rays dugout. In spite of the rich history of Cuban baseball, his favourite player is Ichiro Suzuki, whom he expects to meet and interview one day. A retro lover, he considers Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Koshien Stadium, and Estadio Palmar de Junco as the can’t-miss places in baseball.
Source: New England Baseball Journal