Amid such issues such as human rights violations, meeting with Cuban political dissidents, opening up commerce and easing travel restrictions, a highlight of President Barack Obama’s controversial trip to Cuba this week promises to be an exhibition baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays.
It’s the first visit to Cuba by a sitting president in nearly 90 years. And the Obama administration apparently hopes that baseball diplomacy can help achieve a historic game changer akin to the pingpong diplomacy of Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972.
But the University of Richmond Spiders got there first.
In mid-December the university’s baseball team, accompanied by a cadre of coaches and staff, spent a little more than a week in the island nation playing local teams. For those who experienced the trip, it was an eye-opener.
Left-handed pitcher Zachary Grossfeld, a senior from Plainview, New York, who is majoring in accounting and sports finance, kept a daily journal of his experiences. This personal record celebrates the universality of baseball as well as revelations about what it means to be an American. — Edwin Slipek
When we land as a team in Havana on Tuesday night, I don’t know what to expect. But after I walk through the door and pass through customs, I sense being in a different country. Leaving the airport, we arrive at our hotel just before midnight. From its appearance, I didn’t expect much. So the dribbling water from the shower, being allotted two twin beds for three people, and a leaking air conditioner don’t faze me. Besides, we aren’t planning to spend time in the room except to sleep.
Walking through central Havana and the Plaza de Armas, I begin to sense the city. We find beautiful paintings on canvas and wooden carvings just by taking a wrong turn down a back alley. Visiting a cigar shop, which I’d never done before, I encounter shapes and hand rolls that smell more moist and rich than any cigars I’ve smelled in the past.
Making a purchase at the flea market isn’t like America where you check out. Navigating the market is an experience in itself. Getting approached is unavoidable, with sellers pushing everything from cigar cutters to magic boxes. I buy a Cuban baseball jersey for my brother. The price is as low as I can negotiate. The vendor started at $60 but eventually settled for $45, throwing in a T-shirt. The vendor asks me why I’m here, and I tell him it’s to play baseball. He says he kickboxes and has recently started to fight professionally. He’s adamant about how hard he works at perfecting his craft.
Many Cubans we meet are extremely prideful and want to show off to us how much they know about the United States. Those who know we play baseball list all the American teams and players.
We arrive at the ballpark around 2 o’clock to play the Hurricanes. The day before, at practice, they heavily scouted us. Our tour guide tells us he heard they might call up older professional players if we they thought we’d beat them badly.
While I’m using my resistance bands by the fence, two little boys come up to me and ask in Spanish what position I play. I’m not fluent, but can have a decent conversation. I tell them I’m a pitcher and that I’ll give them a ball after tomorrow’s game because I need it for practice today. The show up to the game the next day, and I give Michael a ball before I get on the bus.
The Cubans have an extremely structured routine before the game. The pitching coach blows on a whistle for exercises, something I’ve seen only in football. They place their caps to their chests at synchronized times during their national anthem, and leave their hats over their hearts out of respect during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The game moves at a much slower pace than we’re used to. The Cubans use their entire pitching staff, which means a new pitcher warms up every inning. This could have been because the coach wanted to give every pitcher an opportunity against the Americans. We win by more than 10 runs. They have a few powerful batters, including one 17-year-old player in line to start for the Cuban National Team.
What happens after the game affects me the most. We exchange hats and jerseys with the players. I give one of the pitchers my shorts in exchange for his jersey, No. 97. I struggle speaking with him in Spanish — they’re surprised I know Spanish at all — and he and his friends want to hang out once they realize we’re at a hotel. They remind me of my friends and me, just in a different culture.
When we line up for a picture my Cuban counterpart and I are too short for our heads to be in the frame. I tell him, “No estamos alto,” which means “We aren’t tall.” He replies “Si, si,” and laughs wildly with his teammates, as if he can’t believe I opened my mouth. We have a simple conversation, but nothing too deep because of my restricted vocabulary. I would have loved to exchange more thoughts, but the language barrier doesn’t allow it.
Leaving the stadium, I see kids rush into the dugout to claim half-full water bottles. This seems to be a norm, because they were lined up and ready to rifle through whatever we left behind as the buses pull out.
I continue to be amazed at the universality of baseball — not just as a sport, but as a language. On the first day, coach Matt Tyner and the Cuban hitting coach traded ideas about hitting mechanics. Although they conversed in different languages, they built an understanding based on body language and hitting movements. When Tyner pointed to a spot on his body to demonstrate a hitting motion, the Cuban coach didn’t miss a beat. And when the Cuban coach critiqued some of our hitters, our coach knew exactly where he was coming from. Through hitting mechanics, simple motion and fundamentals, they transcended a language barrier that otherwise couldn’t have been crossed.
Before today’s game we hear a lecture on Cuban baseball history. The speaker, head of the Cuban Baseball Federation, passionately recounts memories of Cuba playing the United States in exhibition games. While we watch video highlights of Cuban baseball from some 20 years ago, I come to understand the flair with which Latin American athletes play today. To Americans, such celebratory moves as bat flips and fist bumps may appear narcissistic, full of braggadocio. But a Cuban player views baseball as a way out. Cubans play the game with a nothing-to-lose attitude, from which Americans could learn. Even in distress, they carry a certain confidence.
In those moves I see a catharsis of emotion that says, “I’ve arrived and I don’t care what you think.” I’ve heard announcers criticize major league Cuban players such as Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Céspedes for making flashy gestures. Before this trip, I would have agreed. But I’m not so sure those commentators understand the culture behind this style of play. While these players may not be as highly polished at such a young age, they play with a style and swagger rarely seen in America, and it’s an opportunity to see it from the other side.
The team we play today shows more solid fundamentals than the Hurricanes in our first game. With more consistent pitching and solid contact, they take the lead early and stay within winning distance. But when all is said and done, the scoreboard reads Richmond Spiders 10, Habana, 7.
I’m excited to see some freshmen start in game situations for the first time. I’m impressed with Layne Looney, who throws well first his first time in a game since an injury, and Kyle Schmidt, who catches with the demeanor and composure of a polished upperclassman. When Layne warms up, I’m entertained to hear the umpires say “tira fuego,” or “throws flames,” and gesturing to the ground, as if they can’t understand how a kid so small can throw so hard.
After the game, senior outfielder Jansen Fraser tells me that after he gave a Cuban fan his red Spiders T-shirt, the emotionally appreciative player practically cried on his shoulder. When a Cuban player wanted to trade his shirt for another piece of Jansen’s gear, he refused to take the player’s only shirt. He likely would have left the park shirtless in exchange for the American’s batting gloves.
En route to lunch we climb steps and pass by the usual mix of stray dogs. Eventually we sit down in a quaint, cottagelike restaurant with long, family-style tables. As we sit down, the first course is already in our faces. At an incredibly fast pace, waiters and waitresses bring fish, meat, beans and vegetables before we can finish the plates in front of us. A meal after the morning ballgame at Pinar del Rio has the same atmosphere in terms of pacing, portions and friendly conversation.
The experience reminds me of a visit to relatives in Italy 10 years earlier with my family. We were bombarded with delicious meat and pasta and expected to finish every bite. Far removed from American fast food or familiar dishes, dining in Cuba has been a pleasant experience. Local mainstays such as rice, beans, pork, and chicken have been flavorful and given a distinctive flair at each restaurant. And although we’ve been warned of potential upset stomachs, I’ve had no problems eating everything on my plate.
Arriving early at the baseball field to help out and bat with a local junior team, we embrace the opportunity to be ourselves without worrying about the final score. I play the field first as the kids get an “at bat” against the coaches in a batting-practice set up. At first, we don’t play all-out defensively, thinking we’ll give the kids a chance to get on base. That thinking changes: After a few at-bats, it dawns on our players simultaneously, “Wow, these younger guys can actually swing it.” We play as good a defense as we can with pitchers scattered in the infield until their entire team has a chance at the plate. Other than the poor condition of the field, the experience feels no different from a Richmond Spiders baseball camp or any other clinic back home.
Immediately to the left of the front entrance to the baseball stadium is a room with a curious display of little statues and wall art. The first object I notice is a wall hanging embellished with national symbols of Cuba — indigenous and iconic birds, flowers and well-known people such as José Martí, whom our team was told about quite a bit a few days ago. He’s considered the prophet of Cuban independence. Next to Martí’s image is a picture of a baseball. The sport is held in the same high regard by the Cuban people as the independence that allowed its blossoming.
A representative of the Cuban Baseball League lectures us on the importance of the sport to the individual provinces, and asks coach Tracy Woodson’s son, T.J., to pose for a shot next to the print. Seeming to represent the youth of America, he stands beside the picture representing the beloved Cuban tradition, as if to symbolize possibilities for future relations between Cuban professionals with American major league baseball.
During our Cuban visit, as I later learn, a group of American players including Clayton Kershaw, Yasiel Puig and Miguel Cabrera returned to Cuba to further the relations between the major leagues and Cuban baseball. Currently, a Cuban can’t play in the major leagues without renouncing his citizenship and forfeiting his right to represent the Cuban National Team. The commissioner of the majors wants Cubans to play in the major leagues while retaining their citizenship.
In the same room, miniature handmade statues represent each team in the Cuban professional league. I’d never thought of mascots as being fine art, just team symbols. But these, skillfully crafted with vibrant colors and animated expressions, mirror the colors and decorative and graphic styles we’ve seen while riding through neighborhoods and along the sea.
Continuing to our dugout, we enter another room with murals of Cuba’s baseball legends. Every national player in Cuba aspires to represent his country at the highest level, like the players on this wall. For Cubans nationwide, the sport strengthens the people and builds honor.
The time of our last game in Cuba has come. In a hard-fought contest we eventually come out on top to conclude our road trip 3-1.
Out in the bullpen during much of the game, we make friends with the Cuban pitchers. Noticing a scar on my left elbow, one of them points to it and tells me he doesn’t speak much English. I manage to tell him that I’ve had surgery on my nerve in May and fully recovered. He then shows me a scar on his right elbow, the result of his Tommy John surgery. It was six months ago, and he’d just started throwing lightly. Interested in my rehab, he asks about my weight lifting and throwing routine. Although his surgery was in Cuba, his routine was almost identical. He’s amazed that I stayed at the surgery center in Florida for rehab for a few days because he was on his own after his operation. Cuban medical facilities aren’t in the greatest shape, but he said its doctors are second to none.
After the game, like earlier contests, I eventually make my way over to the rest of the Cuban staff and talk about the same stuff I would have back home. “Who have you guys played and what are the best spots to go out?” I ask them. “When are you going back to the U.S.?” they ask me. We trade clothes and equipment. I give two of the guys in the bullpen my cleats and shorts. In return, one of the pitchers starts removing his only pair of shoes. I explain, “Es un regalo,” a gift. He can’t believe it, but I tell him we get new cleats in the spring. The other pitcher begins slipping off his only shirt to trade for my shorts. I tell him it’s OK, we have more in my locker at Richmond.
If I were a baseball player in Cuba, I’d probably give away my clothes as well to get my hands on high-quality American gear. Most of the stuff they have isn’t that great and limited in supply. In their minds, new gear gets them one step closer to fulfilling their dream of playing for the Cuban National Team: Sacrificing whatever they own is worth it.
I realize that I take for granted misplacing a shirt or ripping a pair of pants, I can easily attain new ones. These guys aren’t in the same position. I’m happy to give away my gear on the last day and I’m sure my teammates feel the same way.
For our last two nights in Cuba, we spend time on the beach. We swim in crystal clear water, play volleyball and hold a final team dinner on Cuban soil. The players express appreciation for the life-changing experience that wouldn’t have been possible without our coaches, athletic staff and travel guides.
For better or worse, the players I’ve met here have dreams, aspirations and interests similar to mine, although fostered under extremely different circumstances. They grew up in a Communist country, a nation far less affluent than mine. I grew up middle-class in a nation with the most opportunity in the world.
Sometimes people confuse something “different” as meaning something has to be either better or worse, but this wasn’t the case in Cuba. This past week, with no connections to American society or anyone back home, I’ve been as happy as I’ve ever been. Our team, coaches and staff wanted to have the most fun we could in sometimes less than desirable circumstances.
And while we could easily have complained about the run-down hotel, lack of air conditioning and upset stomachs, I never hear a single player harp on those things. Unlike the Cubans we had the pleasure to meet, we have the freedom of going back to the United States. For most of the Cuban players, we are the only Americans they ever met and they welcomed us with open arms. We were treated as family. We were sons to their coaches, and our coaches were brothers to them. I couldn’t have imagined or asked for a more gracious reception and I hope we returned the favor in representing our country.
Sitting on the plane, I reflect on some things I’ve learned.
Don’t live life through a filter: With no phones, Internet or computers, we’re forced to block things out and focus on our jobs as baseball players. Our social media hiatus was a blessing. We had fun because we genuinely wanted to, not for the sake of an Instagram post or a tweet. Back home that line is blurry. Social media can be great and lets us share our lives with others, but sometimes we need a break so sharing doesn’t remain the focus. This is easier said than done, but I’d like to leave the phone at home for extended trips like this because being cut off from a notification-centered lifestyle is honestly one of the biggest releases I’ve ever experienced.
Learn a new language and never miss an opportunity to meet new people or have a new experience: Even though I haven’t had an intense Spanish class since my junior year, I’m amazed at how many words I can recall. Some of the most interesting people on this planet don’t speak English, so knowing another language at least starts a conversation. On the other hand, I learned that good times can cross the language barrier.
Find yourself unhappy? Change your perspective and things might seem a little brighter: Through the good times and bad as a team we all had to deal with the same challenges in Cuba. The best thing to do was turn it into an opportunity. Unfortunately, a fellow player had his money and phone stolen from a locker room, sending us to the police station for a couple of hours. But at least we had a bus to drive us. After every single game I watched the Cuban players walk through the parking lot to return home. How far they’d walked I don’t know. But they never complained about it or asked us for a ride back. They walked home from the ballpark every day, while we’d only been here for a week. We share the same love for baseball, but they have a much harder time making that love possible. We buy new cleats to replace mangled ones, and they run the bases with flapping soles. We live in a country where everyone is afforded opportunity, and they are constantly told everybody deserves the same, despite individual effort.
I have a newfound love, appreciation, and perspective on life — and baseball — that far outweigh the rum and cigars we’re bringing home. Although Cubans and Americans dig their cleats into different soil, we’re all baseball players at heart. S