The West Hartford community had a chance to watch some talented teens play baseball Monday night at the University of Hartford, but the game, welcoming ceremony, and reception was about far more than just baseball.
By Ronni Newton
Within the bounds of the baseball diamond at Fiondella Field at the University of Hartford, competition was intense as the teens of Team USA hosted Team Cuba.
In the dugouts, along the warning track, and in the stands, the spirit of friendship and unity reigned supreme as the USA-Cuba Goodwill tour officially began.
In their first-ever visit to the United States, the Cuban teens and their coaches are more than just a team. They are diplomats on a ground-breaking and history-making mission that is helping bridge a gap between two countries that have been separated for decades by much more than 90 miles of water.
In April, when West Hartford’s “Team USA” and their coaches and parents – a group of 70 in all – traveled to Holguin, Cuba for a week of baseball diplomacy, it gave the Americans a chance to visit a part of the world that they had never seen, and to learn first-hand about the Cuban culture. Political barriers have kept the countries separated for decades, but the goodwill tour, in allowing Americans to visit Cuba and the Cubans in return to visit America, is helping break down those walls on a grassroots level in a language – baseball – that all can understand.
The goodwill exchange is great on so many levels, said Dennis Woodworth, a Nova Scotia native and longtime baseball coach who started the Canada-Cuba Goodwill Tour several years ago. “These kids are wearing their national colors. It gives them a chance to represent their countries,” said Woodworth, who has worked closely with West Hartford’s Tim Brennan to make the USA-Cuba Goodwill Tour a reality.
Woodworth said that the teens on the Cuban team were handpicked not just for their ability to play baseball, but for their ability to represent their country based on their level of sportsmanship, community involvement, strong family values, and willingness to actively participate. “It’s more about who they are as a person, not as a player,” he said.
The West Hartford teens are also well aware of their roles as diplomats, Brennan has said.
Former Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee has been leading trips to Cuba since 1999. He has served as ambassador for the goodwill tour in Canada and has taken on the role with the USA tour as well. He shuffled between the teams’ dugouts Monday, encouraging and coaching all of the players and getting the crowd cheering.
“It’s a very big shock for the Americans to see what the rest of the world looks like. It was an eye-opener for these kids,” he said of the trip to Cuba. When the Cubans – most of whom had never even been to Havana – arrived at Fenway Park on Sunday, “they were amazed. Their eyes dropped,” he said.
But more than the obvious differences between New England and rural Cuba – where most of the cars are models from the 1950s – the Americans have gotten to experience how polite and family-oriented the Cuban teens are, Lee said.
“What’s happening here is tremendous,” Lee said of the goodwill tour.
“This is great for the kids, great for my country, for America, too,” said former Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant, one of the most iconic Cuban baseball players ever to play in the U.S.. In between signing autographs, Tiant sat in the Team Cuba dugout closely watching the game.
Tiant, who retired in from Major League Baseball in 1982, left Cuba to play baseball in the United States in 1961. Until he threw out a ceremonial first pitch in a March exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, he had only returned to Cuba once – in 2007. He went 17 years without seeing his parents and 46 years without going back to his native country, he said.
“Politicians get in the middle, but we don’t care about that. We want to be friends. We want to get to know the people,” Tiant said Monday.
Tiant thinks that allowing for the goodwill exchange is a step in the right direction at bridging that 90 miles of water.
“We’re all humans … I love my country, I’ll love it til I die, but I’m an American now, too,” Tiant said. He wants both the Cuban and American teens to play “good, clean” baseball, and do a good job representing each other’s countries.
The Cubans are already enjoying their time with their American hosts, although some may think that their breakfasts of French toast, waffles, and bacon, and some of the other habits they are learning, are not necessarily for the best.
Town Council member Beth Kerrigan and her sons Carlos and Fernando were cheering for their new friends from Cuba during Monday’s game. She and her wife Jody are hosting Orlando and Raidel – two of the Cuban teens. Fernando said he has already taught them to play Xbox.
At the opening ceremony, held after the game because Fiondella Field does not have lights, the Cubans and other spectators experienced many of the wonderful things local youth are doing, as the Charisma Choir, SRL Irish step dancers, and Hartford City Ballet performed.
Tiant and Lee, as well as former MLB players and ESPN commentators Rob Dibble and Doug Glanville participated in the opening ceremony.
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said that the teens are providing “the voices and vistas for people in Connecticut and around the country” as they engage in the goodwill tour. The tour may be based in West Hartford, but it’s a national event that will “inspire and impress” people throughout the country.
“Bienvidos,” said University of Hartford President Walter Harrison. He said it was a great honor to be able to host the U.S. team from West Hartford as well as the Cubans.
Fiondella Field’s namesake – Bob Fiondella – also welcomed the Cubans. The retired CEO of Phoenix Life Insurance Company said that the principal reason he was willing to help finance the field years ago was so it could be “a place where teams from around the world can play.” He told the players from both teams that they are helping build relations between the two countries.
Brennan has spent more than a year working to make the inaugural USA-Cuba Goodwill Tour a reality. He spoke to the teams and spectators, as Reynaldo Cruz Diaz from Cuba translated his words into Spanish.
In addition to playing baseball, part of the trip includes sharing the American culture and “having a little fun as kids,” Brennan said.
The opportunity to experience Cuba was like a gift to the Americans, said Brennan. “The entire point now is to give that gift back to you,” he said.
Through the goodwill tour, about $300,000 in baseball supplies and $30,000 in school and other supplies has already been donated to Cuba, Woodworth said.
“On behalf of Cuba, I want to express our gratitude,” Cuban coach and translator Yosel Vazquez said. “We are proud Cubans and proud to be in America to build this bridge. Baseball is just the vehicle to do this,” he said.
The American flag flew alongside the Cuban flag in Holguin back in April as both countries’ national anthems played. Woodworth said if not for the goodwill tour it was something most Cubans would otherwise maybe never had gotten to see.
Team Cuba beat Team USA 10-2 in West Hartford on Monday, but as soon as the game was over the score was forgotten. Both teams gathered in a circle where they challenged each other to do some crazy dancing. Team USA player John Doar said the dancing wasn’t rehearsed. “They told us to get in a circle, and one of the Cuban coaches started dancing. It’s history …” Doar said.
“Come on everybody,” yelled Cuban coach Julio Fernandez in English. “One, two, three … friends!” they all shouted in unison.
On Monday, the West Hartford Fire Department color guard presented both flags at the University of Hartford field as the Cuban and United States national anthems played and the teens smiled at one another across the field.
The public can watch Team Cuba play several more games including Wednesday, July 13, vs. West Hartford Havoc at 5:45 p.m. at Hall High School; Thursday, July 14, vs. Hartford at 10 a.m. at Hyland Park in Hartford; Saturday, Saturday, July 16, vs. Newington at Legends Field in Newington; and Sunday, July 17 vs. Glastonbury at Riverfront Park in Glastonbury.
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