Vermont exports 11 little league baseball players to Cuba for a goodwill game. “It was so incredible, I will never forget this experience for the rest of my life,” said Eli Bostwick, 11, a catcher from Essex Junction.
HAVANA – A team of Vermonters became the first American ballplayers to face the blistering fastballs and nasty changeups of Cuba’s No. 2 youth pitcher.
Eleven players — from Burlington, Essex Junction, Shelburne and Bristol — traveled to Cuba this April to play five games against local teams. The absence of a scoreboard at the Cuban ballfield represented the greater goal of forming friendships and creating cultural ties.
Vermont assistant coach Tom Simon played catch with 12-year-old pitcher Marcos Reyes prior to the game. Simon said Reyes’s pitches clocked in at 70 mph and left his hand swollen.
Throughout the weeklong trip, the Vermonters played side-by-side with ballplayers like Reyes and No. 1 ranked catcher Julio Cesar Perez. The players exchanged jerseys, donated equipment and shared post-game dinners with the opposing team and their families.
The Vermont team included: Ozzie Kost, Will Gumbrel, Anna Jenemann, Eli Bostwick, Carter Monks, Andrew Goodrich, Ollie Pudvar, Tate Agnew, Cyrus Perkinson, August Rinehart and Nolan Simon. Jim Carter coached the team along with assistants Simon, Jeff Goodrich and Dave Bostwick.
Burlington-based Cuban American Friendship Society (CAFS), which focuses on creating connections between U.S. and Cuban citizens, organized the trip. The nonprofit has offered professional and educational trips to Cuba since President Barack Obama opened “people-to-people” travel.
The Vermonters traveled under academic visas and attended lectures on Cuban sport at the Jose Marti Institute.
“I think trips like this really amount to citizen diplomacy,” said Jared Carter, executive director of CAFS. “These players are the future for both of our countries and improved diplomatic relations.”
Coach Carter said the Cubans’ extended their hospitality from the start when he met with officials from the National Baseball Federation (the Cuban equivalent of the MLB), to determine playing rules for the week. They agreed to no curveballs, no leads and seven inning games.
This sportsmanship and goodwill extended beyond the rules of the game.
“Despite the language barrier, we were really able to interact,” said Carter Monks, 12, a player on the team and grandson of coach Carter.
The players, coaches and families found ways to connect by drawing the baseball field on a napkin to indicate their positions and playing a game with soda can tops.
Monks, the first baseman, expressed gratitude for the welcome his team received from the Cubans. He hoped they could someday come to play in the U.S.
“My greatest takeaway was how friendly and open the Cubans were,” he said.
Eli Bostwick, 11, a catcher from Essex Junction, had similar feelings about the trip.
“It was so incredible, I will never forget this experience for the rest of my life,” he said.
Bostwick also said he would remember the level of talent on the Cuban teams.
“I enjoyed learning how to get better, just by watching the Cubans play,” he said.
Cuban baseball greats appeared at the ballpark each day to meet with the American team and throw out ceremonial first pitches. The list included Carlos Tabares, centerfielder for the Cuban National Team, Omar Linares, the best third baseman in Cuban history, and Frank Camilo Moregon, the current starting catcher on the national team. Moregon also catches for the Havana Industriales in the Cuban Professional League.
The Cuban teams had sharp pitching, stellar defense, solid hitting and speedy base running, but the Vermonters were able to compete each day due to accommodating rules. Vermont played a local Cuban team from a different part of Havana for each of the first four days. Their opponents were Habana-del-Este, Playa, Cerro and Marianao.
The Cuban ballplayers face tough competition from a young age. Havana, a city of 2.1 million, has only sixteen teams for the 11-and-12-year-old age group. By comparison, Burlington with a population of about 42,000 had eight teams last year.
The Vermonters lost 9-0, 9-1, 13-3 and 17-5 over the first four days. On the team’s fifth and final day, they faced their biggest challenge yet — La Habana, the Havana provincial team. The team, composed of the best 11- and 12-year-olds in the country’s biggest province, serves as an academy team for the Havana Industriales.
Lucky for the Vermonters, players and coaches from each side switched teams before the start of the game.
Coach Carter said La Habana definitely had some players with major-league potential if the embargo opens up.
The Vermont group visited local sights when not on the baseball diamond. The team’s packed schedule included a daily lecture, a cultural visit, practice, a baseball game in the afternoon, and a post-game dinner with their Cuban opponents.
They toured Old Havana, visited Ernest Hemingway’s home, took a dip in the ocean at Playa-del-Este and experienced a ceremonial cannon firing at a Spanish fort.
The Vermont team experienced the afterglow of the historic matchup between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team that Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro attended less than a month earlier. The red, white and blue banners at the little league field were from that game, so were many members of the grounds crew and even the announcer. The team visited the 55,000-seat Cuban National Stadium—Estadio Latinoamericano — where the Rays won 4-1.
Before the Vermonters’ first game, the Cubans played the U.S. national anthem over the stadium speakers, only the third time the anthem had been played at a baseball game since the Cuban embargo was imposed in 1960.
Tears filled coach Carter’s eyes as he watched his ballplayers present the stars and stripes alongside the Cuban flag.
“I would have never thought, in my lifetime, I would see the playing of the U.S. National Anthem in Cuba, with a bunch of 11- and 12-year-old kids,” Carter said. “I remember the embargo, the blockade, quarantine and the nuclear missile crisis. It was a really special moment for me.”
Carter said he hopes to work with CAFS to bring Cuban players to the U.S. in the near future. He cited the friendship and media attention the trip created as a strong contribution towards normalized relations.
“These kids have done more over four days than our government has done in the last 40 years,” he said.
Those interested in seeing additional photos and reading more about the trip can visit the team’s blog: www.cubabaseballtrip.wordpress.com.
ALEXANDRE SILBERMAN, Burlington Free Press
May 11, 2016