UNIVERSITY PARK — They have known about the trip for months, but for some it still hasn’t completely sunk in.
Maybe it will take until the bags are packed and they head to the airport, or maybe when they are soaring in their plane, or maybe when they board the charter jet in Miami.
But definitely when they touch down, looking at the palm trees of the island nation — and realize their cellphones don’t work — it will hit them hard.
Members of the Penn State baseball team are packing their bats and gloves and heading to Cuba.
This won’t be your ordinary road trip to Iowa City.
“I don’t think it will hit me until we’re on the plane on the way down,” senior outfielder James Coates said. “It’s a pretty amazing opportunity that we’re fortunate enough to be a part of. Once we take the field down there, we’ll be like, ‘Wow, this is something that’s really happening right now.’”
A few members of the Nittany Lions, and head coach Rob Cooper, talked about the planned excursion Tuesday afternoon at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. Outside the stadium suite where they spoke, a steady rain was falling, leaving puddles on the infield as November’s chill was starting to bite.
But they knew what was ahead for them when they leave town Nov. 21 and spend a week in the Communist nation in the Caribbean, 90 miles from U.S. shores and a world away from life as they know it.
“Cuba is definitely not a place I thought about going to, or expected going to,” said Coates, who has two semesters of Spanish under his belt and went with others from his high school on a mission to Ecuador. “When I found out about it, it didn’t really hit me, but I told (Cooper) … ‘Every time we have another meeting, I get more and more excited about going down to Cuba.’ ”
The concept began with Cooper was meeting with donors and fund-raisers in February. The initial plan was to build up their discretionary funds, get a few things to help with training, and maybe if they raised enough, take a team on a trip somewhere. Other programs on campus have taken trips overseas, like the soccer and basketball teams, but not the baseball team.
During that conversation, Cooper was asked if he would be interested in a trip to Cuba. The coach thought it was a joke at first, but Kirk Diehl, of the Varsity “S” Club, was serious. He put Cooper in touch with Dr. John Nichols, a retired professor of communications who specialized in communication issues in Cuba and that part of the world. Nichols has been a frequent visitor to the country since 1977, taking many Penn State students there. Nichols and Penn State also have a strong relationship with the Center for Marti Studies in Cuba.
They thought the trip was possible even before President Barak Obama’s administration announced the strengthening of ties with the nation in July.
They will be tourists as well as baseball players. They will hear lectures, see different parts of the island, eat local food and sample life. They also will be joined by eight students from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism, who will be documenting the trip.
The team also will be hitting the field, with four games scheduled. First, there were a few games against younger teams from the University of Havana and a youth national team. Then the schedule got changed. They play twice against Industriales, a winner of 12 titles in the nation’s top pro league, the Cuban National Series. There also will be games against Pinar del Rio and Matanzas.
Penn State will be one of the few college programs to play games there, and just the second to play a team from the Cuban National Series.
As the countries strain to normalize relations after decades of wary looks across the Straits of Florida, the Nittany Lions essentially get to be a part of the 2015 version of the 1970s’ “ping pong diplomacy” between the U.S. and China.
“When you realize the history of (the) sport around the world, and baseball being such a big deal to their lives in Cuba,” Cooper said, “it’s their national sport. It’s a big thing of who they are as people.”
Cooper knew it was a big deal with whoever was going to be in the other dugout, and knows the actual games are secondary to the educational value.
“I would have been ecstatic playing the schedule we had,” Cooper said. “I’m excited about the baseball part of it, I really am. I’m excited about the fact that we’re going to play competition like that. I’m more excited about the fact these young men are going to be able to say that they’re the first U.S. team to ever play against a series of national teams — not the first college team, the first U.S. team.”
Plus, who knows who might be on the field down there? The Nittany Lions might be facing the next Yasiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman, both defectors from Cuba now Major League All-Stars.
Nichols has been involved in the process as well. He’s been teaching the players about the culture, giving them homework, and will be joining them on the trip. Other administrators have been helping with the planning and logistics, and they have gotten input from a number of places.
Among those Cooper has consulted is Russ Rose, who took the Nittany Lion women’s volleyball team to Cuba in 2000. Cooper joked the volleyball coach and avid cigar smoker has already placed his order for a few stogies.
The players will have to make a few sacrifices. Many of the comforts of home will be gone, like fast food restaurants down the street and easy access to wireless internet. They also will have to miss spending Thanksgiving at home.
But there is little doubt they will be doing something much more memorable, making all the sacrifices worthwhile.
“Wearing the Penn State logo is something we take great pride in,” said junior pitcher and State College graduate Tim Scholly. “I’ve never been able to do that on an international level. Speaking for my fellow teammates, we’re all looking forward to that.”
By Gordon Brunskill, Centre Daily Times
November 11, 2015
Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, [email protected], @gordoncdt