Penn State baseball returns after historic trip
Team finishes 1-3 in play against national squads
Trip ‘eye-opening’ for coach, players
UNIVERSITY PARK After an eventful week in Cuba, Penn State baseball returned to the United States full of stories and with a widened perspective.
“Unbelievable trip,” said head coach Rob Cooper. “We talked all along on the leadup to this trip that I felt like it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them, and I think it was all of that and more.
“The people of Cuba could not have been nicer or more accommodating to us. The baseball was great, but just to get to see Cuba, and the history and culture and to get to know some people down there is something that I think everyone associated with the program will take with them for the rest of their lives.”
Penn State became both the first team in U.S. history to play multiple teams in Cuba’s top league, the National Series, as a part of the historic Friendship Tournament, and the first to notch a win in the series, finishing the visit 1-3.
But it started with a little bit of a culture shock for some players.
“For me, it was basically just leaving the airport and just seeing a completely new place, really,” said outfielder Nick Riotto. “The old cars, no real cellphones, no real TVs in the airport, just nothing but a conveyer belt, your suitcase and the outside world. It was really just like, ‘This is for real, this is something I’ve never experienced before,’ so it was definitely something just to see the people as soon as we walked out of the airport. (They were) looking at us and we were looking at them, just kind of trying to feel each other out.”
Added pitcher Tim Scholly, “When we played our first game, you could see people up in the stands and you could really get a feeling for how little they had. A lot of them were asking for baseballs, for shoes, a belt, a hat. … Anything that you could possibly think of, they were asking for.”
The team was swarmed almost everywhere it went, and required a police escort — but it was a friendly and curious welcome, players said. One student journalist along for the trip said his adviser remarked, “This is the only time you’ll ever get to know what it was like to be (one of the) Beatles.”
The language barrier was prominent, too, but the players and Cooper agreed that once the games started, they got over that.
“It was tough, but we had some people translating for us that helped us out,” said Scholly. “(And) we were playing against some of the top talent in the world. Some of the guys on the Cuban team had played in the World Baseball Classic against some Major League Baseball stars, and just to be able to talk to them about their experiences and how they play baseball, and just how they truly love the game down there, it was a great experience for all of us.”
Cooper has played in different countries before, and said he explained to the Penn State players the differences they were sure to see in the styles of play among the Mantanzas, Mayabeque, Industriales and Ciego de Avila clubs they’d face.
“The nice thing is, both countries and both cultures share a passion for the game, so there’s a love for the game of baseball,” said Cooper. “Baseball is really intertwined into their history and who they are as a nation. So it’s their national sport, and it’s a way for a lot of those players to truly express themselves as individuals because so much of their life is dictated by their government.
“They can be very demonstrative, and I don’t mean that negatively. It’s more of a celebration.”
Cooper said that when the team played Ciego de Avila in Havana, they were in the territory of the rival Industriales team and both fanbases showed up despite the fact that the latter was not playing that day. The raucous mocking began, started by the Ciego de Avila fans.
“(They were mocking Industriales) for basically beating a college team 2-1 when they are supposed to be the New York Yankees of Cuba,” he said. “Well then, as this game is going along and we’re playing these guys tight and having a chance to beat them, these two fanbases are just going at each other during the game.
“It’s about pride, and their region and their pride. It was pretty cool.”
Cooper said that while he saw many things that helped his team on the field after the experience, the off-the-field takeaways are what will stick with him.
“You know, you go to a place like Cuba and you see some of the things you don’t have,” he said. “It makes you appreciate the things that we take for granted.
“(For example), they look at a baseball as gold. When a ball goes into the stands in Cuba, they throw it back because it costs too much money to keep. And there are kids all over the United States who get a baseball every day and lose it, and it’s no big deal for them. To (Cuban children), it’s an actual treasure.”
Most memorable, said Cooper, was the sense of pride the Cuban teams took in themselves.
“Through the game of baseball, our guys were able to see that you can read whatever you want to read in the media about politics and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “But at the end of the day, these are people that love baseball. They’re human beings, and they’re very proud of who they are. And they’re proud of their nation.”
By Jourdan Rodrigue, Centre Daily Times
December 2, 2015
Jourdan Rodrigue: 814-231-4629, @JourdanRodrigue