Jake Thorne isn’t really thinking about the historical nature of his upcoming trip to Cuba.
He just wants to play baseball.
Thorne and fellow Naples residents Max Landi and Stephen Barnicoat are members of the Fort Myers Baseball Academy Giants, a U14 baseball team that is the first U.S. youth travel squad to visit the island nation. The Giants will be playing a Cuban all-star team, perhaps the Cuban U14 national team, in five exhibition games during its five-day visit from July 13-18.
“I think it will be a really good experience, especially for getting better at the game,” Thorne, 14, said. “Here, there’s some good competition, but it isn’t as good as it is in Cuba. Here, baseball is a pastime, but there it’s an obsession.”
The goodwill trip was engineered by Fort Myers Baseball Academy president and head coach Carlos Perea, a former minor-league infielder for the Kansas City Royals in the late 90s. Perea, a 36-year-old native of Puerto Rico, visited Cuba the same week President Obama became the first U.S. president to set foot on Cuban soil in nearly 90 years. That historic visit was part of an ongoing effort to normalize relations between the longtime feuding nations separated by just 90 miles.
Perea worked with the Cuban Baseball Federation and former MLB players from Cuba like Jose Contreras, who pitched for the Yankees, White Sox and three other teams during an 11-year big-league career.
“We have it all here (in the United States). Our kids have the best equipment,” Perea said. “And I really wanted our kids to see how these (Cuban) kids struggle to get to where they need to be. Our kids are never going to see a milk carton used as a glove, but they make do with what they have in places like Cuba, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.”
Perea said he plans to donate baseball equipment to the Cuban team at a raffle when the games are finished.
Rudimentary equipment or not, the Southwest Florida squad expects to see competition unlike any they’ve seen.
“It doesn’t matter if you have the $400 bat or the $300 glove,” Giants assistant coach Tim Vanmeter said. “Those kids over there aren’t going to be playing with top-level equipment. But they’re going to take it to us every game and we need to be ready for that.”
Landi, a center fielder and pitcher for the Giants and a freshman on the First Baptist Academy baseball team, said the team has modest goals for the trip.
“The Cubans are really good in baseball. We’re not expecting we’re going to win (every game),” he said. “But we’re going to go out there, play our best and hopefully we come close to winning or maybe take a game or two. Not a lot of kids our age get a chance to go to another country and play baseball. If we compete with these Cuban teams, when we come back to the United States, we’ll have the confidence to beat some teams that are better than us.”
Perea said his team will not only benefit from the top-level competition, but also hopefully learn some life lessons as well.
“Our kids have it all. They’ve got the privilege of getting pretty much what they want, for the most part,” Perea said. “But when you get inside that baseball field, you’re going to see these Cuban kids hungry to play and succeeding with what they have. Our kids are going to see that and hopefully appreciate it. Look at these kids, hitting with a piece of crap bat and hitting very well with it. I want our kids to appreciate what they have and know other countries aren’t so fortunate.”
And each member of the Giants will hopefully have stories they’ll be able to share with their children and grandchildren one day, for no other team that comes after them will be able to say they were the first.
“I haven’t really thought about making history or anything like that,” Thorne said. “I’m thinking of having fun and playing the game. I’ll probably think about it a lot more when I’m there and after I get back home.”
Andrew Sodergren, Naples Daily News
April 28, 2016