UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It started by mentioning that he’d like to take his Penn State baseball team on an international trip, but Nittany Lions baseball coach Rob Cooper had no idea Cuba was an option.
He was in a meeting with a group of Penn State athletic staff members when he said he hoped to take his team out of the country on a preseason trip, something the NCAA permits teams to do once every four years. That’s when someone suggested Cuba.
“I thought he was kidding,” Mr. Cooper said.
A few years later, it’s no joke. Next month, Penn State will become the first U.S. team at any level to play against teams from the Cuban National Series, Cuba’s premier baseball league. The team will travel to Cuba the week of Thanksgiving break on academic visas for a trip that will include four baseball games, lectures and seminars.
Two of those games will be played in Havana against Industriales, a team regarded as a Cuban version of the New York Yankees for its dominance on the field, at the 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano.
PNC Park, by comparison, has a seating capacity of 38,362. Medlar Field, Penn State’s home park, can seat 5,406.
Penn State also will travel 100 miles west of Havana for a game against Pinar del Rio and 65 miles east of Havana for a game against Matanzas.
Although the games will be a highlight of the trip, the educational aspect is the most important to Mr. Cooper.
“What our kids are going to be able to do is they’re going to be able to see Cuba for what it is right now, before it does change and before that whole development can happen down there,” Mr. Cooper said. “The fact that 30, 40 years from now they’re going to be able to tell their grandkids, ‘Hey, I was in Cuba right when this all started to turn,’ and that I think you just can’t put a price tag on.”
The trip is made possible because of Penn State’s partnership with the Havana-based Centro de Estudios Martianos (Center for Marti Studies). Penn State’s Office of Global Programs signed a memorandum of understanding for scholarly engagement with the center that predates the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize relations with the island country starting in December of last year.
John S. Nichols, a Penn State professor emeritus who spent nearly 40 years traveling to Cuba and who conducted research on Cuban communications issues, is joining the team on the trip.
“They’ve got a really good mix of high-level competition games and at the same time visiting cultural sites, visiting historic sites, attending lectures on the history of Cuban sports, on larger topics about Cuban history and the life of Jose Marti, so it really will be a true mix of athletics and academics,” Mr. Nichols said.
Penn State’s travel party will include fewer than 50 people. Because of travel restrictions in Cuba, the trip is limited to the team, coaches, trainers, select Global Programs workers and eight student journalists. Mr. Cooper said the baseball games are a bonus for his young team, since the competition is just one component of the trip. The most important, for Mr. Cooper and Mr. Nichols, is using sports to better understand Cuba and its culture.
Penn State baseball will be the third U.S. collegiate team to visit Cuba this year. In 2000, Penn State women’s volleyball, under the direction of head coach Russ Rose, became the first Division I team to compete in Cuba. Mr. Cooper said he and Mr. Rose spoke about the experience.
Mr. Nichols is using his experiences in Cuba to help the team prepare for the trip. He and the coach will hold meetings for parents and the baseball players, helping them understand some of the many differences they will face — including little details such as foul balls being thrown back on the field in an effort to preserve a precious commodity.
“There’s no place on the face of the earth that’s as close yet so far as Cuba,” Mr. Nichols said. “It’s 90 miles away from the United States, but it’s a different world.”
Audrey Snyder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
October 30, 2015