USA-Cuba: hitting it out of the park in 2016

A TCC retrospective by Tim Brennan

We were pioneers, all 72 of us. Two countries divided for decades, we were the first USA-Cuba Goodwill Tour. Thanks to the magic of Bill Lee connecting us to Dennis Woodworth, it became a reality. And we were audacious, not at all flying under the radar. Cuba was a hot topic and the press could not get enough. Because we had to, we also created an exchange the same year, sponsoring a group of 12 kids and their coaches from Holguin to come to West Hartford in July.

The one-year lead-up to our departure was part of the journey. The 18 kids were young ambassadors first and baseball players second. They raked leaves to fundraise, made public appearances at the Miracle League Halloween, and at the World Series Club to see Devon Whyte. They collected over 1,000 pounds of baseball equipment and school supplies. The group studied the history of Cuba at a Conard High School seminar and refreshed their Spanish on a smartphone. U.S. Senator Chris Murphy acknowledged their diplomacy mission at a community center breakfast in West Hartford and again at the pizza send-off at WHABA headquarters in front of cameras from all local media outlets.

The memories from our adventure can fill a book. The thrill-filled bus ride to Montreal, including the “incident” at the Basketball Hall of Fame parking lot, reminded us that bumps in the road will happen. Touching down in Cuba at night felt appropriately mysterious and clandestine, as the island would not be revealed to us until morning. Dennis greeted us in person for the first time and built the excitement of our mission during the bus ride to the resort.

Opening ceremonies were in the village of Tacajo, Julio (“everybody loves Julio”) Fernadez’s hometown. Our jaws dropped as we approached the field – there were 1,200 locals there to see us, some standing on rooftops. All had traveled by foot or horse and buggy. Most had never met Americans. We would take an early lead in the game, as we did in all games in Cuba, but relinquish it as Cuban fans partied to the sounds of bongos and singing. They literally embraced us after the game and sought autographs.

We played in Estadio Calixto Garcia de Holguin, home of the Holguin Dogs professional team and Aroldis Chapman, a true honor. We would return there later in the week for clinic day, put on by coaches and new friends, Noelvis Gonzales Matos and Karel Garcia Zaldivar, other Cuban coaches and the great Bill Lee. The kids presented piles of baseball equipment for the project in Holguin.

Jimmy Altman and Mike Piskorski from FOX61 came with us and documented the whole trip. In addition to games and city scenes, they were invited inside homes (thanks to everyone’s buddy, Reynaldo Cruz Diaz) and a school in Tacajo, not only the first time American journalists had done so, but also the favorite moment of the Tour for many. On their April break, teachers, students and parents filled the school to greet us with song and dance. We delivered the school supplies, but like every day of the Goodwill Tour, the gift was ours.

Bringing our Cuban friends to West Hartford in July was about giving back. Rick Sanford and I began planning events at WHABA during the winter. We usually consider Cooperstown to be a long trip from West Hartford, but on the planet it’s relatively close. We had to go. Luis Tiant, the most iconic living Cuban ballplayer in the US, was in. The Lees returned. Doug Glanville, part of ESPN’s MLB in Cuba crew, joined us as did Rob Dibble.

So much continued to fall in our laps. We received generous donations from so many, both monetary and in-kind. NBC’s Lester Holt show called and would cover us. The Red Sox came through with tickets to their last game before the All-Star Break. Doubleday Field in Cooperstown opened up for us. The Yard Goats had volunteered the new stadium for opening ceremonies and when the stadium project was delayed, the University of Hartford came through for us. The list of magic was long.

Our Cuban friends almost didn’t make it here. American banks held up the wire transfers to the US Embassy to pay for their visas, seeing the word “Cuba” in the instructions. A local old-guard bureaucrat tried to “postpone” the trip at the last second. We scrambled, leveraged contacts and our brave Cuban friends pushed through, determined to come. Packed into the back of a truck, they left Holguin for an overnight journey to Matanzas. The local bureaucrat’s orders had been spurned and he let us know it. We exchanged emails and went to bed thinking the Tour was off. The next morning, we made the decision to forge ahead.

Thirty-two hours later, our Cuban friends arrived West Hartford for a welcome reception at Conard High School. We embraced like long-lost relatives. They showered, had breakfast and we bused to Boston. We were soon on the field at Fenway Park in the company of Big Papi with Bill Lee and Luis Tiant and were part of the Red Sox opening ceremonies. Welcome to America!

Our goal is to connect kids from different cultures and our favorite moments from the Tour were just that. During the opening ceremonies reception with Tiant, Lee, Glanville and Dibble taking questions and answers, we adults paused to observe that the kids – Cuban, American, baseball player or not – had organized a spontaneous soccer game on the field below. The next day, on the bus ride to Cooperstown, our new friend, Yosel Vazquez, had the boys singing and dancing in the aisle. Later that day at Doubleday, the Cubans came back again, filling their plastic water bottles with gravel to create their own maracas to cheer their teammates along the way. The loss stung but Yosel had both teams in a circle after the game dancing to the Cuban hit, Hasta Que Se Seque el Malecon. The Americans had learned how to celebrate baseball Cuban style and they were hooked.

Cuba played other teams the rest of the way and the Americans joined the Cubans in their dugout, cheering on their comebacks with water bottle maracas. Our young ambassadors, decades after the revolution, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, had thawed some ice between nations previously divided. We had built lifelong relationships. Goal accomplished.