Anais Nin, the late Cuban-American writer and essayist, was born to Cuban parents in 1903 in France, where she lived until she fled during World War II. She also lived in Spain and Cuba and the United States. She was friends with Henry Miller, Gore Vidal and John Steinbeck. Nin knew the world and she once wrote this about visiting foreign places and learning about people: “We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”
Inside John Cullen’s Grosse Pointe Woods home, where Cuba and travel and meeting new people and experiencing a new culture is on everyone’s mind, the sentiment of Nin’s words echoes through the halls of his otherwise quiet house.
Other states, other lives, other souls.
Cullen is an infielder and a pitcher for the Grosse Pointe Avengers, an under-16 baseball team that will travel Aug. 1-6 to Cuba. The Avengers are believed to be the first Michigan youth baseball team to travel to Cuba since the island nation’s revolution ended in 1959 and the U.S. imposed travel restrictions. Cullen and his family will be part of a contingent of nearly 50 people who will travel with the Avengers to Havana to play games against Cuban teams, meet players and their families and learn about the culture during excursions.
On a June morning, Cullen, 16, sat in his bucolic courtyard patio and thought about the Cuban people he would meet, removed by nearly 1,500 miles and decades of slow economic development.
Surrounded by the patio’s flagstone and chirping birds and a babbling fountain, maybe Cullen couldn’t help but sit quietly as he searched his thoughts about what he might encounter. Cullen just finished his sophomore year at U-D Jesuit and wrote for the Cub News, the school’s newspaper. He will have a unique responsibility because he will function as an official chronicler of the trip when he writes about his experiences for the Free Press.
“What I’m seeing,” Cullen said of what he expects to write about, “whether it’s landmarks or whether it’s how people act, if they’re kind towards us, if they’re kind of hostile. I’m not sure what to expect because it’s a whole different scene. I’m excited to see it. I’m just trying to let as many people experience it as I can.”
The old saying about the difference between a tourist and a traveler is that a tourist sees what he came to see, whereas a traveler sees whatever he sees.
Cullen will be joined by his parents, Karen and Matt, and his older brother Ryan, who just graduated as the valedictorian at U-D Jesuit and was John’s boss as editor-in-chief at the school paper. But the Cullens don’t sound like tourists when they speak about the trip, and it’s no accident.
In January, Avengers manager Brian Kruger devised the trip to Cuba when he was listening to a report on National Public Radio that said not many people were taking advantage of the travel restrictions to Cuba that had been loosened last year under President Barack Obama.
Youth teams from Vermont, California and Florida have visited Cuba. Kruger floated the idea to a small group of team parents, including the Cullens. Soon, Avengers general manager Bob Maxey told his players.
“I thought it was kind of a joke at first because we’ve had ideas (about other tournaments),” John Cullen said. “It doesn’t really sound like something you’d do. So (Maxey) just asked, ‘What do you guys think about going to Cuba?’ It was like, ‘Sure, that’d be fun but it’s probably not (happening).’”
Kruger arranged the trip through the Educational Travel Alliance, a Miami-based company that works with the U.S. Treasury to make travel arrangements.
The Avengers have taken tournament trips around the country and some of the team’s players were on the Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores team that reached the 2013 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. But this was different.
“Brian’s been very adamant,” Karen Cullen said, “and he’s been up front with everybody, saying, ‘We’re not going to Disney. This is not a trip to Disney.’
“It’s not even a trip to Cincinnati or even Williamsport. This is going to be different than what we’ve experienced before. And some people might be surprised by what they encounter.”
Kruger knows his team and his team parents. Many are well traveled. But even at the cost of $3,000 per person, he wanted to be sure no one was considering themselves a tourist on an expensive Caribbean vacation.
“I had to explain to them this isn’t going to be like going to Orlando or going to Paris,” Kruger said. “It’s essentially a third-world country and if we’re going to go we have to do a few things. We have to be ready … and I want our kids to know what the cultural significance is of going to Cuba.”
Kruger, 55, briefly was a teacher in the 1980s at Ypsilanti High. All these years later he has returned to the classroom, which has become a dugout between games. His pupils hold bats instead of pencils and sit on benches instead of at desks as Kruger instructs them on Cuba.
“I want them to go down and appreciate it, like, ‘Holy smokes! I can’t believe we’re here,’” Kruger said. “Because the parents get that and all of us (adults) who are going. You guys have no idea how cool this is.”
John Cullen said the players understand Kruger’s lesson plans.
“I think he’s trying prepare us for going down there,” he said, “and the culture shock of seeing kids who are playing in the same sport but have a totally different experience and a totally different life and different resources. So I think he’s been trying to really make sure we’re aware of what we’re doing.”
Education seems to be the underpinning for the whole trip. At every turn, Kruger discusses learning about people, culture, history and, yes, even baseball.
The Avengers are scheduled to take part in a clinic that might include Luis Tiant, the Cuban-born pitcher who played 19 years in the majors and had one of baseball’s most unique windups all-time. Kruger wants to be sure his players pay him due respect.
“I want them to be as appreciative of that as if the Cuban kids came up and met Derek Jeter,” he said. “They need to understand, if that guy’s there, if it’s their Steve Yzerman or something, I want my kids to be in awe of that, too.”
Kruger admits he’s looking forward to seeing something himself if he meets Tiant and his famous mustache.
“If I see the big Fu Manchu,” he said, “I’ll get a kick out of that.”
Besides baseball, there are scheduled trips to Revolution Square and Old Havana. Kruger wants to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home in Havana, which the government has preserved.
The other part of the trip, which Kruger repeatedly emphasized, is the giving part. He wants the Avengers to extend themselves in every way possible to the Cuban people. The Avengers will take as much equipment as they can and leave it in Cuba.
“We’re also taking the teams and their families out to dinner,” Kruger said, “because I think it’s kind of in bad taste if we’re going to play baseball against guys and then have them walk home and then we’re going and having a nice (meal) every night.”
It’s hardly a tough sell for the Cullens, who still remember the friends John made on the Japanese and Australian Little League teams in 2013.
“Learning about other cultures, the experiences other people have, the way of life for other people that isn’t necessarily like our own,” Karen Cullen said, “and understanding that was something initially we thought would be a great opportunity for the boys and us to observe and witness and to meet people that we otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity.”
Good-bye before it’s gone
When the Avengers visit Cuba, there will be another valedictorian in their midst besides Ryan Cullen. Kruger is saying good-bye to coaching youth baseball after 27 years. The Avengers’ final game will be his final game.
Kruger runs Stunt3 Multimedia, which specializes in producing historical documentaries. He marketed his 2011 film about Art (Pinky) Deras, who led Hamtramck to the 1959 Little League World Series title, to the MLB Network. He hopes to put together a film about the Cuba trip he can send the network as well.
“The strategy with that is arm enough parents with cameras,” he said, “so it’ll be both on the field, around the field, in the stands and then for the cultural stuff as well and we’ll put together something.”
If the documentary comes to fruition, it could serve as a time capsule. Karen Cullen wants to see Cuba before it changes.
“I would envision 10 years from now it’s more of a resort kind of place or something,” she said. “So if your first time going is 10 years from now it would be very different from going right now. To me, going right now you’re seeing it as it’s been for the last number of years.”
So the Avengers are traveling to Cuba. They plan to see what they see as they seek other states, other lives and other souls. And even the youngest among the Cullens understands that the Cubans, without leaving their country, will be trying to do the same.
“I’m assuming they’re probably really curious about what’s going out outside of Cuba, not being able to get much info in there,” John Cullen said. “So I think spending time and going to dinner and seeing them as friends and people, because it’s so different. I think that would be very cool.”
See video here.
Carlos Monarrez, Detroit Free Press
July 8, 2017