When I first stepped off the plane, it was hot, it was humid, and it felt as though everyone was watching me. It’s not every day that an American high school baseball team travels to Havana, Cuba, to play against local teams.
The first team we faced was a municipal team formed from one of the baseball academies in Havana. As the starting pitcher, I was the first to experience in full effect the baseball tactics of our Cuban opponents. Quite frankly, after striking out 8 in 3 innings without allowing a base runner, I was underwhelmed. We ended up winning the game 7-1.
That said, some players were younger than we were, while a few of them looked much older. The teams that they formed were different from those in the U.S. in that they are skill-based, not age-based.
The second team we played was a little better, but we still managed to pull out a win. For the third game, the municipal team put in some of their bigger and most experienced players, perhaps to ensure at least one victory for themselves.
Off the field, we were given a chance to roam, Havana, via bike, bus and foot, going on tours and visiting all the monuments we could.
We were blessed with the opportunity of a lifetime to practice with a team that could be called the Yankees of Cuba: the Industriales. By this I mean full-fledged practice, start to finish, with the best team in the country.
That in itself says something about Cuban athletes. In contrast to U.S. players of the same caliber, just because someone is a hot-shot in the Cuban National Series doesn’t mean they can’t spare an hour to sit down and talk with young aspiring athletes.
Such was the case with Enrique Diaz. The 23-year veteran second baseman, who has won many championships with the Industriales and holds eight records in the league including career hits, runs, stolen bases, and triples, was willing to talk with us and give advice.
The athletes, as proven by Diaz and others from the Industriales, were extremely open and modest. They were also surprisingly friendly. They wanted to know where we were from, why we were there, and how long we were staying.
While it’s such a beautiful island, it really is sad to see so many people living in poverty. Despite all of my incredible experiences on the field, I feel that most importantly, I’ve drawn from this experience, a newfound gratefulness for what I have back home. Clean water, washing machines, wireless Internet, and other technologies are scarce in Cuba. What a difference a mere 90 miles between Cuba and the south Florida coast makes.