Michigan college baseball players find surprises during trip, games in Cuba

By Chris Cloonan

HAVANA — After a weeklong trip to Cuba, Grand Valley State University’s top-ranked baseball team returned to Michigan on Jan. 9 with a feeling of accomplishment that transcended victory on the field.

Though the team lost the three exhibition games it played against Cuba’s college baseball all-stars, the Lakers became part of an opening in relations between two nations that, for more than half a century, have teetered on the brink of warfare.

Above all, Grand Valley’s players came back humbled and full of hope.

“I think a lot of Americans have these stereotypes —- that it’s a communist country, that you don’t really have any rights and people don’t really like Americans,” said Jared Cowan, a senior catcher and captain of the team. Cowan and 29 other players traveled to the island nation to take on Cuba’s national team, made up of 18- to 22-year-old all-stars 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 and four days of studying Cuba 101, in which they immersed themselves in Cuban history and culture, the team arrived in Cuba on Jan. 3. After a day of practice, they squared off against the Cuban nationals at Santiago “Changa” Meduras Stadium before a crowd of about 1,200 spectators.

But the Lakers had to adjust to many differences. For one, they had to swing with wooden bats instead of their usual aluminum ones. “During batting practice we were terrible,” said 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 here than in the U.S., which once called it the Great American Pastime –- Lyon did not seem terribly disturbed about the team’s losses.

“There were probably six to eight guys that were certainly draftable. The rest of the team would be good solid D-1 players. So we were playing up a level,” Lyon said of the Cuban team.

The Lakers lost the first game to the Cubans five to four, in the bottom of the tenth inning. But to hear the coach and students speak of their experiences is to hear feelings of victory.

The Lakers were not used to the in-stadium graciousness of the Cuban fans, who blew whistles throughout the games.

“There were 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,” Cowan said.

The friendly nature of the Cuban people surprised the Grand Valley players, who had expected a rude welcoming simply because they were American.

“It was crazy because you wouldn’t think that we’d get the acceptance that we got from them,” said junior relief pitcher Brad Zambron. “I didn’t think they’d be that nice and welcoming towards us.”

Coach Lyon agreed, saying, “No matter what problems they have at the governmental level, the people of Cuba and the people of American can be friends.”

The team may have not been able to converse with the Cubans in their native tongue but it turns out they did speak a common language.

“Even though we have a barrier with our language, the ability to create something very, very special brought us together,” University President Tom Haas said.

Athletic Director Tim Selgo explained that baseball is a universal language and allowed the players to understand each other.

The teams met and exchanged gifts between games. Grand Valley State players were presented with a flag and the teams exchanged jerseys, hats and other equipment, an act that meant a lot to the players on both sides.

As they prepared on a January Sunday evening to depart Cuba the following day, they were hoping to be able to get their gifts back home, given the U.S. embargo against bringing non-informational Cuban material into the U.S.

For Cowan, the best part of the trip came after the baseball games. For one thing, the team engaged in a missionary venture, giving medical and baseball supplies to some of Cuba’s less fortunate 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 and 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 against their Cuban opponents, the Lakers said they left Cuba with a new perspective on life.

Zambron, the pitcher, said he is more thankful for the simple things he has 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, saying, “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 Lakers are a Division II team that was ranked number one for most of the last season.

The trip was the second by an American college, according to Selgo, who added that the University of Alabama made the voyage to Cuba in 2008.

The Michigan experience is being seen as part of the easing of tensions between the two countries. The administration of President Barack Obama recently lifted certain restrictions on travel and on the sending of remittances by Cuban-Americans to relatives on the island.

The University of Alabama had a working relationship with the Cuban government before visiting the country four years ago, unlike Grand Valley. Only one of Grand Valley’s players 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 telling him. “I realize now that he was 100 percent 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 okay. After much red tape and some lobbying from local politicians, the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the U.S. Treasury Department gave Grand Valley State University the green light.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

David Morris contributed to this report.