Historic trip sends local baseball players to Cuba in a series of goodwill games before enthusiastic crowds
HAVANA, CUBA – Some of the best talent from the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League competed for the first time ever in Cuba last week against professional teams in the Cuban National Series.
The CRCBL squad ended up 1-2, earning a 3-2 victory against Pinar del Rio that surprised Bruce Adams, director of the Office of Community Partnerships in Montgomery County and one of the organizers behind the trip.
He noted the Ripken team “amazingly won the first game.”
“We found it extraordinary that we were able to win a game against these top teams,” said Adams. “Our record was 1-2 but we were glad.”
To a team of baseball players and others who were one of the few Americans ever to step foot on the island after the Castro regime took power, the sights may have given off the impression of a vacation, but that wasn’t why they were there.
The Ripken team brought with them about 14 large duffle bags filled with baseball equipment, most of which was left behind in the hands of underprivileged kids, according to CRCBL commissioner Jason Woodward.
Also with them were two former Baltimore Orioles players, Brady Anderson and B.J. Surhoff, who played on the 1999 squad that traveled to Cuba.
The Tampa Bay Rays visited the island earlier this year, when they played a highly publicized game in March with Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro in attendance. It marked the first game in Cuba with professional players from both countries since the Orioles’ trip 17 years ago.
The trip was an extension to the regular CRCBL season for the players who went, and completely optional.
“I think it’s a great trip an a great experience and a great thing to do, that we’re bringing equipment and donations and stuff down there too,” said Cole Aker, pitcher for the Baltimore Redbirds during the season and one of the pitchers that went on the trip, before the team went to Cuba.
It had the team go to three different stadiums around the island, the last of which was at the Estadio Latinoamericano where the Orioles played 17 years ago.
But even though the couple days spent there meant more baseball for student athletes coming off of the CRCBL season and the springtime college season before that, they had time to experience some of Cuba by themselves.
“We were looking to give these college kids the best experience they’ve had in the summertime,” said Woodward.
The experience was not the Cuba that Cubans live but rather a more tourist-oriented experience. Their main focus was baseball.
“We lived in a bubble,” said Adams. “They rolled out the red carpet for us. We didn’t go see the more challenging aspects of Cuban life.”
The journey to Cuba did not go without obvious hurdles, complicated by the short timeline for the organizers.
Passports and visas had to be arranged, the logistics of booking a hotel and other amenities through a third party, and plane delays.
The politics that would have polarized a public trip to Cuba like this decades ago were nowhere to be found, according to Woodward.
In fact, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8) sent a letter expressing his pleasure with the trip to Woodward, citing Obama’s efforts to warm the relationship between the two countries and the trip as such an example.
Adams agreed, noting “a series of small steps like this will lead to a breakthrough in the future.”
There are ideas swirling around on another meeting between the two countries.
“Sports is a great icebreaker. (It’s a) great way to break open relations between countries or groups,” said Woodward.
Woodward said he hopes Cuba might send a team to the United States next year.
Adams said talks will begin about another set of games next summer, although these ideas are all hypothetical at this point.