An Experience of a Lifetime: Local Baseball Team Travels to Cuba

Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League players stand on the field in Pinar del Río, Cuba, before facing the Vegueros in a game there. Via Bruce Adams

Team of collegiate players beat one Cuban professional team in an upset

The Aug. 3 baseball game in Pinar del Río, Cuba was unlike any Nick Leonard or his teammates had played before.

Leonard, a Chevy Chase resident and Georgetown University student, was in Cuba along with a group of other players from the local Cal Ripken League, to play against Cuban professional teams. The trip was arranged by Bruce Adams, director of the county’s Office of Community Partnerships and founder of the Cal Ripken League team the Bethesda Big Train.

“You could tell they absolutely worship the game down there,” said Leonard, a pitcher. “The first game was incredibly eye opening. We’ve all played in front of bigger crowds, but nothing like that.”

He said the crowd was louder and more energetic than he and his teammates were used to, and that a live band played behind the third base dugout the whole game.

That game against the Vegueros was the first in a series of three that the players from the Cal Ripken League, a summer collegiate baseball league, played against Cuban National Series teams. Against the odds, the Cal Ripken players came out on top in that first game, winning 3-2.

“We were very pleased to win a game,” said Adams, who joined the team on the trip. “These were college guys playing against the major leagues of Cuba. To win even one was thrilling.”

Adams said the trip had been in the works for two years. He thought it would be a good experience for the players and the Cal Ripken League, but he hadn’t been able to secure permission to take a team there until he met with Cuban officials when he accompanied County Executive Ike Leggett to Cuba in February.

The team was accompanied by a delegation of 47 people, including coaches, family members, sponsors and other Bethesda-area residents. Catherine Leggett, wife of the county executive,  also joined the group. They arrived Aug. 2 and returned Aug. 6.

In addition to Leonard, there were three players from the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts, three from the Rockville Express and four from the Gaithersburg Giants.

Although the team lost to Matanzas Cocodrilos and Havana Industriales in the next two games, coach Brady Anderson said the team played well.

Anderson, a former outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles, had been to Cuba before: in 1999 the Orioles played a historic game in Havana against the best Cuban players, the first time a Major League Baseball team had played in the country in 40 years.

While the recent visit may not have had the same barrier-breaking impact as the game years ago, Anderson said the trip still brought the two countries together through a shared passion.

“The reason why I agreed to go this time was because the memory from the first time still resonated,” said Anderson, now the vice president of baseball operations for the Orioles. “It’s important to spread that goodwill and camaraderie through baseball between these two countries. The embargo has so separated the people in these countries, but one thing we share is baseball and the enormous love of the tradition of baseball.”

Adams said continued outreach through baseball and other cultural bridges is an important way of making Americans more conscious of the neighboring island nation.

“Baseball and sports and culture bring people together faster than politics,” he said.

While Leonard initially ignored the email about the Cuba trip—thinking it was another study abroad opportunity he wouldn’t be able to go to—his parents convinced him to make the trip, and he was glad they did. He enjoyed touring cities and visiting museums and said he wouldn’t forget the games.

“My parents were like, ‘You need to go on this; this is a once in a lifetime opportunity,’” Leonard said. “You couldn’t have asked for a better trip. It was so perfect, getting to see Havana and playing some really good baseball teams down there.”

Joe Zimmermann, Bethesda Beat
August 12, 2016

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