A baseball team of teens from West Hartford visited Holguin, Cuba, in April, and the second phase of the exchange is set to begin with the arrival of the Cuban team and their coaches on Sunday, July 10.
By Ronni Newton
A group of 18 – 12 teens and their adult coaches and translators – is set to arrive at Conard High School in West Hartford at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 10 after spending more than 36 hours traveling, but as they disembark from their bus to grab quick showers and enjoy a breakfast donated by Whole Foods, being travel-weary is unlikely to detract from the excitement and anticipation for the next 10 days.
“Kids in Cuba don’t dare to dream they could come to the U.S. like this,” said Tim Brennan, local program lead for the USA-Cuba Goodwill Program and an assistant coach for the West Hartford team. Brennan helped form the non-profit Teen Cultures Connect, to assist with goodwill efforts through baseball and other shared interests.
In April,a group of 70 that included 18 13- and 14-year-old baseball players spent a week in Holguin, Cuba, and the surrounding countryside, playing baseball and interacting with their counterparts on team Cuba. It was a cultural experience that none will likely forget, and organizers are hoping to create lifelong memories for the Cubans as well.
The exchange is so unique and groundbreaking that NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt will be covering much of the visit, beginning with the preparations in Holguin and the Cuban team’s departure on July 8 by bus from Holguin to Varadero, Cuba, where they will board a flight to Toronto, Canada, a connecting flight to Montreal, and an overnight bus trip to West Hartford.
Brennan found it hard to contain his excitement about the first activity planned for the visit which will begin right after breakfast on Sunday.
“So many things have been about the planets aligning in our favor,” he said. After spending months trying to arrange something with the Red Sox, it turns out that Sunday, July 10, is the last home Red Sox game before the All Star break. The Cuban and American teams will be on the field at Fenway Park for the opening ceremony, as video produced by FOX 61’s Jimmy Altman and Mike Piskorski from the April trip to Cuba is displayed on the big screen.
The Red Sox will play the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, a team that includes Cuban-born right-fielder Dayron Varona. Varona made history in March when he became the first Cuban MLB player to return to his country after defecting. The landmark game between the Rays and the Cuban National Team, the first time in 17 years that an MLB team played in Cuba, was attended by Pres. Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro and has been viewed as a milestone in easing relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
“I’m really looking forward to watching the Cuban kids’ eyes turn into saucers,” Brennan said in anticipation of the Fenway trip.
The Cuban contingent, which includes 12 players, three coaches, and three translators, will stay with host families in West Hartford for the duration of their visit. Many hosts are parents of the kids on the West Hartford team, but Brennan said there was also a lot of interest from the community in hosting the visitors. Team parents who are not able to host are participating in other ways, he said.
When the Americans traveled to Cuba, every kid had at least one parent with them. “I’ve met or been in touch with some of the parents. They had some apprehension,” Brennan said, but he has assured the parents that the kids will be in good hands.
Although the West Hartford team raised funds for their April trip, much of the cost of the trip was financed by the families. That’s not the case with the Cubans’ trip to the U.S. which is being paid for with in-kind donations as well as significant fundraising that has been done for the USA-Cuba Goodwill Program.
The public will have a chance to participate in some of the activities with the Cuban team, beginning with a game and grand opening ceremony at the University of Hartford’s Fiondella Field on Monday, July 11.
The game between the Cubans and the U.S. team begins at 3 p.m., and will be followed by the opening ceremony at 6 p.m. The game is being played first because the field doesn’t have lights, Brennan said.
The ceremony, which will be emceed by FOX 61’s Altman, will include the playing of both country’s national anthems, a performance by the Hartford City Ballet, Charisma Choir, Irish step dancers, and jazz music. Brennan said performing arts are a big part of Cuban culture and performances preceded many of the games that the U.S. team played during their April visit.
MLB greats Luis Tiant, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Doug Glanville, and Rob Dibble will also be part of the welcoming ceremony. Sen. Chris Murphy, who attended the send-off in April, and others in the Connecticut Congressional delegation will not be able to attend because they are in session, but Murphy has created a video for the teens, Brennan said.
The game and the ceremony are free of charge, and will also be followed by a fundraising reception at the University of Hartford. Tickets ($25 for adults, $10 for children) will include hors d’oeuvres, burgers, and a cash bar. Proceeds will all go to Teen Cultures Connect, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that is sponsoring Team Cuba (Holguin). Click here to purchase tickets to the reception.
The whirlwind week will also include a trip Tuesday to Cooperstown, NY, where the Cubans and their American counterparts will have a special tour of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. They will also have a chance to play a game on Cooperstown’s famed Doubleday Field. “Securing the field was not easy to do,” Brennan said.
Wednesday will include more baseball – a high-quality clinic at Hall High School from 9 a.m. through noon. The clinic is open to 200 (some spaces still remain) and among the 30 coaches will be Tiant, Lee, Glanville, and Dibble, as well as the Cuban team coaches. Click here for more information or to register.
The clinic is open to players ages 8-18, for a cost of $75, $60 of which is tax-deductible. Twenty of the slots have been donated to players from Hartford, Brennan said.
“We’re looking at this program as a way to build bridges with Hartford as well,” said Brennan. Organizers have been working with the local RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), and a Hartford team will also have the opportunity to play against the Cubans at Hyland Park in Hartford, a field built by RBI. Shipman and Goodwin is donating a lunch to follow that game, and other local companies and individuals have also been very generous with their donations, Brennan said.
In addition to the West Hartford and Hartford teams, players from Newington and Glastonbury will also face the Cuban team, Brennan said.
Other highlights of the trip will include tours of the Science Center of Connecticut and the Mark Twain House, a Bristol Blues game at Muzzy Field in Bristol (where Jim Rice’s jersey will be officially retired), a tour of ESPN, and a trip to Lake Compounce. “We will definitely get some fun in,” Brennan said.
The American kids are paying their own way for the activities, Brennan said, but the Cubans’ costs are being completely covered through fundraising. “In Cuba they have no disposable income,” said Brennan. There’s no real poverty because nearly everything is part of a government program, but he said the travelers couldn’t even pay for their own passports.
Brennan said he has written checks for their visas, flights, buses, and uniforms – and one of the greatest challenges has been the newness of the relationship between the two countries.
“It took two weeks to pay for the visas through the U.S. embassy. The main reason was that when we wired money to the embassy account both banks held it up. The term ‘Cuban group’ flagged it in compliance,” he said.
“People in the community have been very generous,” Brennan said. Many have been moved by what they have seen in the FOX 61 coverage of the April trip as well what they have read on We-Ha.com and in other publications. Brennan said the in-kind donations have saved about $10,000.
Everything adds up to the power of baseball diplomacy, he said.
“The essence of what we’re doing is connecting kids. It’s especially powerful because our nations have been divided for so long,” Brennan said. The American kids will be interacting with and observing their Cuban counterparts, and he expects the experience to be life-changing for anyone who participates in the visit in any way.
On Tuesday, July 19, at 7 p.m., the team will depart from Conard High School for their long journey home, with memories that are likely to last forever.
Brennan said a trip for next April is already in the works, and fundraising through Teen Cultures Connect will continue. Click here to donate or for additional information.
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