Grand Valley State baseball's trip to Cuba makes life-long memories
By Chris Cloonan
Detroit Free Press Special Writer
January 19, 2012
After a week-long trip to Cuba, Grand Valley State's baseball team returned home this week with a feeling of accomplishment that transcended victory on the field.
Though the team lost its three exhibition games against Cuba’s college all-stars, the Lakers helped foster an opening in relations between two nations that over half a century have teetered on the brink of warfare.
Above all, GVSU’s players came back humbled and full of hope.
"We had this stereotype, you know, that it’s a communist country, that people have no rights," said Jared Cowan, a senior catcher and team captain. Cowan and 29 other players traveled to the island nation to take on Cuba’s national team, comprised of 18- to 22-year-old players from across the country.
"We had been expecting a lot (of hostilities)," he said, adding reflectively that all the negative assumptions "turned out to be totally untrue in our eyes."
After two and a half years of paperwork and speaking with officials from both countries — and four days of studying Cuba 101, in which they studied the nation's history and culture — the team arrived in Cuba on Jan. 3. After a day of practice, they squared off against the Cuban team Jan. 12 in Santiago "Changa" Meduras Stadium before a crowd of about 1,200.
There were many things to which the Lakers had to adjust. For one, they had to swing with wooden bats rather than their usual aluminum ones.
"During batting practice (on the first day), we were terrible," said Lakers head coach Steve Lyon. "But by the third game, the ball was jumping a little bit better."
Knowing that baseball is entrenched in the lives of the Cuban people -- more a national pastime there than in the U.S. -- Lyon did not seem terribly disturbed about the team’s losses. The Lakers lost the first game, 5-4, in the bottom of the 10th inning, and dropped the other two games by scores of 8-5 and 13-5.
Lyon said of the Cuban players, "I would probably say that six to eight guys were draftable. The rest of the team would be good, solid (Division I) players. So we were playing upper level."
The Lakers were not used to the in-stadium graciousness of the Cuban fans, who blew whistles throughout the games.
"That kind of got annoying by the 6th or 7th inning," said Cowan. "But there was a lot of people hootin’ and hollerin’ and it was nice to see the crowd even cheered for our team when we made nice plays."
The friendly nature of the Cuban people surprised the Lakers, who had expected a rude welcoming simply because they were Americans.
"I don’t know if soft-spoken is the word, but they were really nice, really cordial," Cowan said.
"There was a lot of respect between the two teams… It felt like a friendship out there."
Junior relief pitcher Brad Zambron said of the Cuban people, "It was crazy because you wouldn’t think that we’d get the acceptance that we got from them. I didn’t think they’d be that nice and welcoming towards us."
Grand Valley State president Tom Haas, who traveled with the team and even coached first base, agreed with the players. But he expected a gracious welcoming all along.
"The hospitality the Cuban people showed was so heartfelt," he said.
The team may have not been able to speak with the Cubans in their native tongue, but it turns out they did speak a few common languages after all. Haas said he found that "one of the universal languages is smiling."
"Even though we have a barrier with our language, the ability to create something very, very special brought us together," he said.
Between games, GVSU was presented with a flag and the teams exchanged jerseys, hats and other equipment. Many players had discussed possibly framing their Cuban jerseys. As they prepared on Sunday evening to leave Cuba, the Lakers were hoping to get their gifts back home, given the U.S. embargo against bringing non-informational Cuban material.
Cowan, the best part of the trip came after the games. For one thing, the team went on a missionary venture, giving medical and baseball supplies to children. They stopped by a church on the outskirts of Havana and at a ballfield on the way back from church, where they saw children playing.
Cowan said he was deeply touched "to see how the children reacted when we took out baseball hats and gloves (as well as) the medicine that the priest was so thankful for. They were so appreciative. These kids playing barefoot and with broken bats all taped up. (To be able to help them) was really cool."
Even though they lost all three games, the Lakers said they left Cuba with a new perspective on life. Zambron said he is more thankful for the simple things in life.
"We’re very lucky to have what we have. ... They’re happy with anything that they have, in any circumstance. Maybe that’s how we should be. We’ve learned a lot from them, not to be so materialistic. Money doesn’t buy happiness. You can be happy with what you have."
Cowan agreed: "Just to see the way they react over a used glove changed our lives and had an impact on us. Some of us have been coddled and spoiled, ’spoiled Americans.’ We’ve been so blessed."
The trip was the second by an American college, according to athletic director Tim Selgo, who said Alabama made the voyage to Cuba in 2008. This experience is a part of the easing of tensions between the two countries as the U.S. recently lifted certain restrictions on travel. Alabama had a working relationship with the Cuban government before visiting the country four years ago, unlike GVSU.
Only one of the Lakers speaks Spanish, and that wasn’t the only barrier the team had to overcome to finally get to Cuba. Selgo was in a restaurant in Grand Rapids when he coincidentally ran into Marc Bohland, executive director of First Hand Aid, a group that delivers much-needed medical supplies to Cuban hospitals four times per year.
" 'You’ll never be able to do this without my help,’" Selgo remembered Bohland saying. "I realize now that he was 100% correct."
Bohland introduced Selgo to Angelo Fuster, a Cuban exile and business consultant, who assisted in convincing the Cuban government to approve the team's trip. But it proved much more difficult to get the U.S. government to give the OK. After much red tape and some lobbying from local politicians, the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the U.S. Treasury Department gave GVSU the green light.
Cloonan was part of a team of American student/journalists from Stony Brook University that went to Cuba for a week as part of the School of Journalism’s Journalism Without Walls winter program. David Morris contributed to this report.