In the first of a three-part series, Grosse Pointe Woods student John Cullen chronicles his travel baseball team’s historic trip to Cuba
This is the first installment in a three-part Free Press series written by John Cullen, a 16-year-old Grosse Pointe Woods student journalist. Cullen’s travel baseball team, the Grosse Pointe Avengers, is believed to be the first Michigan youth team to travel to Cuba since the communist island country’s revolution ended in 1959 and the U.S. imposed travel restrictions, which have been lessened in recent years. The Avengers arrived in Cuba Tuesday and will return to the United States on Sunday.
HAVANA – As I write this, I am sitting in my bed at my hotel, La Hotel Nacional de Cuba, thinking about the game I am going to play in a couple of hours. If I were at home, there is no doubt I’d be surfing the web or checking Twitter right now, but this isn’t home. It is a communist country and lots of things, including the lack of almost any Internet, are very different here.
My name is John Cullen and I am a 16-year-old from Grosse Pointe Woods. The summer baseball team I play for, the Grosse Pointe Avengers, organized a trip far from the normal youth baseball tournaments for a Michigan travel team; a set of games taking place right in the middle of Havana, Cuba. In these games, we will be playing the 16-and-under Cuban national team (trust me, I know how good that sounds, and there’s a reason). Being a solid southeastern Michigan baseball team, this is going to be quite the test and it will be quite the feat for my team if we can play a competitive game with this team. However, for the players, the parents, and the siblings who have come along, this trip means far more than anything happening in the games.
As our plane landed on the ground in Cuba, my jitters were active. Although I have been lucky enough to do a fair share of traveling with my family, I had no idea what to expect here, a communist country with a so-so history with the country I’m proud to call home. As my family and I walked through the airport, I tried to soak in everything about the experience. The signs were both in English and Spanish, there were advertisements for American products, and every worker we encountered was nice to us and helped us. Down a dark stairway to the baggage claim, it was different because it took no less than an hour for a single bag from our flight to hit the carousel. Meanwhile, we watched as people unloaded numerous boxes filled with air conditioners, flat screen televisions, copy machines and numerous other provisions as people on other flights were bringing goods to family here in Cuba.
For me, the bus ride to the hotel was the first time I noticed the major difference between Cuba and the country I am used. Looking out the window, the poverty of many of the citizens was eye opening. This, combined with the propaganda billboards praising the historic Cuban Revolution in the 20th Century with images of Fidel Castro, made up most of the ride. At the hotel, I was reminded that Havana is definitely used to tourists, just usually not Americans. For the most part, the hotel is very normal and wouldn’t have any surprises to those who travel often. It is older for sure, and a bit antiquated. The lack of Internet has been tough to get used to, especially for a teenager constantly on my phone. Although there is a hotel Wi-Fi network, I have been lucky to get 5 minutes a day with enough connectivity to send a text or two. However, the views from the front courtyard of the hotel are breathtaking. The hotel sits on the Malecón – the seawall that runs along the Atlantic Ocean for 7 kilometers. It is statuesque and beautiful and you constantly see old Fords and Chevys in pinks and blues and other bright colors, driving in front.
With our first game and opening ceremonies taking place on Thursday, we had a practice the day before at a local field. This was different from a normal practice for us in that it was instructed by some of the most prestigious and decorated players to have ever picked up a bat in Cuba. This included Omar Linares, often called the “Derek Jeter of Cuban baseball,” and a pitcher, Lazaro de la Torre, who’s known as the “Iron Man” because he rarely needed rest. As a team, we spent about three hours at a local field doing drills, taking advice and going through a practice in which legends served as coaches. For me, this was the experience of a lifetime. Seeing the kindness, humor, and baseball expertise on display from them was very special and I learned a lot. It was very cool to see how helpful they were and how honored they were to have us visit their country and to have the same passion for the game of baseball that they did.
It is funny that in a country with so many differences, whether it be economic, cultural, lingual, or political, a connection can always be formed through sport, the enjoyment of competition and being friendly.
John Cullen, Detroit Free Press
Aug. 5, 2017