Sports

West Hartford Teens Head to Cuba to Engage in ‘Baseball Diplomacy’

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy takes a selfie with the entire USA-Cuba Goodwill Tour baseball team. Photo credit: Ronni Newton
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U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) attended send-off party Friday evening for the group of 13-14-year-old baseball players and their families that headed to Cuba Saturday morning.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy takes a selfie with the entire USA-Cuba Goodwill Tour baseball team. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy takes a selfie with the entire USA-Cuba Goodwill Tour baseball team. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

The 18 West Hartford teens who departed Saturday morning for a week-long trip to Cuba know that they will not only have the trip of a lifetime but will also have a unique chance to break down barriers as they launch the USA-Cuba Goodwill Baseball Tour.

Jack Brennan (left) and Brian Kenna said they have been practicing baseball and learning Spanish in preparation for travel to Cuba. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Jack Brennan (left) and Brian Kenna said they have been practicing baseball and learning Spanish in preparation for travel to Cuba. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“I feel very fortunate that we’re part of such a special thing,” said 14-year-old Jack Brennan at the send-off party for the teens held Friday evening at the West Hartford Amateur Baseball Association headquarters.

Jack and one of his teammates, 14-year-old Brian Kenna, said they had prepared for the trip not only by practicing hitting in the batting cages, but also by practicing Spanish.

Jack’s dad, Tim Brennan, is the local program lead for the USA-Cuba Goodwill Program, and is also 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.

Brennan said that not only are the students and their families – a group of 70 in all – traveling to Holguin, Cuba, a place few Americans have been, but they are also bringing gifts for the Cuban students. “We have 750 pounds of baseball equipment, school supplies, musical instruments and more. It’s going to be so much fun to give it as a gift.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy speaks to the teens and their families at a send-off party Friday night. At left is Tim Brennan, organizer of the trip and an assistant coach of the team, and assistant coach Steve Meucci. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy speaks to the teens and their families at a send-off party Friday night. At left is Tim Brennan, organizer of the trip and an assistant coach of the team, and assistant coach Steve Meucci. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“I’m so proud of these kids, the parents, the community,” said Brennan. “This is a really meaningful trip,” he said, with the ability to launch new connections between the U.S. and Cuba as the kids play baseball and use the common language of baseball to get to know and understand the Cuban culture.

“I really believe in sports diplomacy,” Brennan said.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee knows about diplomacy, agreed.

Murphy has been a major supporter of the West Hartford team’s mission, and joined the teens and their families at the send-off Friday night.

“The most important relationships are the people-to-people relationships,” he said. Baseball has been one of the linkages between the U.S. and Cuba, and is a great basis for those relationships, said Murphy.

As the inaugural journey of the USA-Cuba Goodwill Program, the trip is of strategic importance as well. “This is going to be a breakthrough moment for the youth of Cuba,” Murphy said. People in Cuba have no idea what life is like in the U.S., Murphy said, and Americans don’t know what life is like in Cuba.

“When the history books are written, you might be in those books. That’s how important this trip is and that’s something to be really, really proud about,” Murphy told the teens, adding that of course he wants them to win their games, too.

“It’s rare to stay that about something 13- and 14-year-olds are doing, and I’m so excited that Connecticut kids are the first to go,” Brennan said. “My hope is that five years from now this will be a regular occurrence, and we in this room are trailblazers.”

Ben Giroux (left) and his dad, Luke Giroux, said they are thrilled about the opportunity to travel to Cuba. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Ben Giroux (left) and his dad, Luke Giroux, said they are thrilled about the opportunity to travel to Cuba. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“I can’t believe I’m going. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance and I’m looking forward to seeing Cuba in its native state. I plan to take thousands of pictures,” said Luke Giroux, whose son Ben is one of the players on the team.

“I told my dad I can’t wait to hand a Cuban kid a catcher’s mitt,” said Ben Giroux, who is a catcher on Conard High School’s freshman baseball team.

Brennan said that plans for the trip have been in the works for a full year.

The journey to Holguin began at 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning in the Conard High School parking lot. There the group boarded buses to travel to Montreal, Canada. Although sanctions have been lifted against travel from the U.S. to Cuba, the only available flights are to Havana, about an 8-hour distance by road from Holguin. Because Canada hasn’t had the same sanctions in place, flights to other Cuban cities are more readily available.

In Montreal, the West Hartford group will meet up with former MLB pitcher “Spaceman” Bill Lee, who is associated with the Canada-Cuba Goodwill Tour and will act as an ambassador for the Americans.

“It’s actually surreal,” Brennan said about the trip finally beginning. “I’m really excited for the kids, and really confident that this will be a life-changing experience, and confident that the goals of the mission – understanding the culture, opening eyes to a country where we have been prohibited, and forging new relationships through baseball diplomacy – will be accomplished.”

Brennan also said his hope is that the exchange will work both ways, and that the Cuban teens will travel to the U.S. in the summer.

For more information about the USA-Cuba Goodwill Baseball Tour, or to make a donation to support the visit by the Cubans to America, visit the Teen Cultures Connect website.

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The team of 18 West Hartford boys, ages 13 and 14, have the unique opportunity to launch the USA-Cuba Goodwill Baseball Tour and will be in Cuba from April 9-16. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The team of 18 West Hartford boys, ages 13 and 14, have the unique opportunity to launch the USA-Cuba Goodwill Baseball Tour and will be in Cuba from April 9-16. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Tim Brennan (right) presents U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy with a team hat and t-shirt at the send-off. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Tim Brennan (right) presents U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy with a team hat and t-shirt at the send-off. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

After taking a selfie with the entire team, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy chats with the West Hartford teens as they prepare to leave for their trip to Cuba. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

After taking a selfie with the entire team, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy chats with the West Hartford teens as they prepare to leave for their trip to Cuba. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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