Homerun Kings: A Trip to Cuba to Play Baseball and Make Friends
One of the accomplishments of the Obama presidency --however modest compared to some of his more significant ones-- has been the opening of goodwill and cultural trips to Cuba by private groups. As such, 11 thirteen and fourteen-year-old boys traveled to our neighboring island nation to play baseball over their Christmas holidays. They were accompanied by their anxious parents and their coach, Jon Rubin, making up a group of twenty eight travelers on their first trip to Cuba.
Bats and smiles
The players were selected mainly from the Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion, although there was a boy from California as well. The trip was conceived by Alan Tauber, a Philadelphia lawyer and his wife, Andrea Weiss, a rabbi. To help cover some of the expenses, the parents organized fundraisers and raised more than $5,000; two players were granted scholarships. The Phillies organization, MLB International, Nike and Pitch in For Baseball donated all sorts of equipment, including bats, baseballs, gloves and the much sought-after Phillies T-shirts. The families also collected school and medical supplies. In fact, each traveler was expected to carry a fifty-pound duffel bag with equipment and donations.
From its inception, the goal of the trip was not only to play games with the baseball-loving Cuban youth, but to create goodwill and friendships; to learn from another culture and share common interests. Most of the boys are taking Spanish at school this year.
Openhearted and liberal
In preparation for the trip “The Philly Team” had eight group practices and formed a bond, since they had not played together before. Having organized a trip to Cuba myself during my years of teaching at Saint Joseph’s University, I know that these groups are self-selecting. The families that are willing to have their children go to a controversial country during their holiday are usually openhearted and liberal. This is particularly true now that Americans may lose the opportunity to enter this communist country again under the new Trump administration.
The group was also lucky with their timing and not to be traveling at the end of November, right after Fidel Castro died, when the country was practically shut down in mourning for ten days.
Speaking too fast
Jake Rasmussen, one of the players, said before he left that he was excited, but didn’t really know what to expect. He usually plays third base and he is a great hitter, he would also be sharing the pitching with other team members. Even as we spoke he was swinging his bat, forever practicing his form.
He watched Cuba, Island of Baseball, the documentary on the MLB Network with his parents and the whole team saw another documentary Havana Curveball at the Jewish Film Festival last fall precisely about Mica, a thirteen-year-old going to Cuba, which was also very helpful, since it mirrored their upcoming experience. “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” on Cuba filled in some of their other cultural gaps.
Jake was aware that Cubans can speak very fast, but he wasn’t worried, he had already traveled to Puerto Rico and Mexico and knew that his mother, Jane Day Rasmussen, accompanying him on the trip, speaks Spanish and would be the ideal interpreter.
Getting to Cuba proved to be challenging in itself; just as flying through Miami with tight connections, twenty-eight people and over thirty pieces of heavy luggage is bound to be. The group landed in Santa Clara, in the northern part of the island and right away they run into trouble in customs with all their donations of baseball equipment and medical supplies. Never mind, the letter of introduction they carried, anticipating such a situation. It turns out that Americans may bring gifts, “regalos,” but not donations, “donaciones” as the letter stated. It was so late by the time they were allowed to leave the airport that they skipped Santa Clara and went directly to Cienfuegos where they would be playing their first game.
Cienfuegos has one of the best baseball training facilities in Cuba, despite the fact that it looked fairly primitive to the Americans for its lack of technology. In Cuba they play baseball year round and “their players are good fielders, but we are good hitters” said Jake confidently.
“The Philly Team” was up to the challenge. Their red, white and blue jerseys, decorated with the U.S. and Cuban flags, also had a monogram of JF-16 to honor José Fernández, the famous Cuban player who died last September. The American team played a total of four games; won two, lost two, perfect diplomacy. Jake hit 5 for 11; Zack, another team player, hit a homerun, outstanding playing by “The Philly Team.”
“Besides playing together,” Jake says, “sharing a meal with a team we had just met was one of my favorite times of the trip.” They went to a restaurant in Matanzas province and somehow were able to share stories as well. Usually the group ate at paladares, private homes where they serve meals. Something that took some getting used to it was waiting a long time for the food and having to sit for two hours to eat lunch. Fast food is a concept that has not arrived to Cuba yet. Most meals consisted of the typical Caribbean fare: rice and beans with chicken, pork or “shrimps” (in plural as it would be translated directly from the Spanish “gambas”), something that made them all laugh.
One of the highlights of the trip was a visit with the first United States ambassador to Cuba in more than fifty years, Jeffrey De Laurentis. This gave the group a chance to see where president Obama had stayed during his historical trip earlier in 2016 and what beautiful homes in Havana looked like before the revolution.
Typically, these large homes were taken over by the government and turned into official buildings of the communist regime. Jake´s mother was able to speak privately with the ambassador and his wife and she could tell how anxious and uncertain their future is right now. It won’t be unthinkable at all for the new President Trump to close the embassy, ending the fragile diplomatic relationship developed in the last few years.
The Bus Trap
Jane was particularly moved during a visit to a rural community in Jovellanos where they met with families who have children with disabilities. The parents in the group distributed the dental and medical supplies via horse and buggy. Seeing these children, who have so little in way of material goods, but are so well taken care of, was the adults’ turn to be thankful.
In any trip there are things that don’t work as planned. Originally the group was scheduled to stay in hotels, but when the final itinerary was sent, their accommodations were changed to private homes. This arrangement opened opportunities for getting to meet families and seeing how ordinary Cubans live, but the logistics of getting everyone to their hosts proved to be cumbersome and time-consuming. Transportation in Cuba is one of the biggest challenges. This group was lucky to have their own bus to move from city to city, but driving four or five hours in some days was not an easy task.
Given the transportation difficulties and the amount of time spent in the bus, there was practically no time for as much sightseeing as they would have liked. What they missed in tourist sites, they more than made up in cultural experiences.
Case in point, the cozy chats in the front of the bus with their guides who dream of visiting the States and seeing their new-found friends here. Some of them have been in touch on e-mail with members of the group already. The teens did get a tour Havana, although, young and old admired the classic, antique American cars even more than the beautiful architecture of the old buildings.
One of the most difficult aspects of the trip was being without internet connection for a week. Imagine what it must have been like to keep 11 young boys entertained in a bus without looking at their phones. They did throw a football around, listened to music and sung to their hearts´ content as young boys are known to do.
For Jake the most emotional part of the trip was after the last game when the American players gave their equipment to their Cuban counterparts. They literarily took the shirts off their backs. Jake shared his bat, jersey and hat with Nelsito. A touching moment took place when Nelsito called over another boy to give him Jake’s batting glove, “because he needed it more.” There wasn’t a boy who wore size 12 cleats as Jake does, so a Cuban father came up to bat, so to speak.
After a trip like this, Jake says that he is so grateful to have had this opportunity, how much he appreciates all the equipment his parents purchase for him readily and all the technology he enjoys every day. He plans to learn more Spanish; he knows how to please his parents. For a while at least, these teens won’t take for granted the comfort of their homes and the models of their parents’ cars.
On the last day of the trip the boys made a brief stop at Caleta Buena on their way back from Havana to Santa Clara. The carefree time spent, swimming and snorkeling, in complete abandon, after a job well done, was one of their favorites.
Leaving the island proved to be as hectic as getting there. “We were still on the bus, driving to the airport at 5:00 PM for a 6:00 o´clock flight,” Jane Day Rasmussen says.
The political situation between the United States and Cuba continues to be uncertain. Just last week, President Obama ended the “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy that allowed Cubans who entered the U.S. to stay and become American citizens. This repeal means that Cubans will be treated just like any other migrants coming into this country, something the Cuban government has wanted for years.
But, despite Obama’s historical trip to Cuba last March, the campaign promise he made to close Guantánamo and stop the embargo has not materialized. What will follow with the new president is even less predictable and encouraging. We can only hope that goodwill and cultural trips like the one taken by the “Philly Team” will be allowed to continue.