America’s national pastime is Cuba’s national obsession.
That’s the first thing Richmond coach Tracy Woodson noticed during his team’s visit to Cuba in December. Woodson and the Spiders saw for themselves the passion Cuban people have for baseball, especially the kids.
“We’d be riding around on the bus, and you’d see a little field, and somebody’s on that field, whether it was older kids or younger kids,” Woodson said. “Some of them were playing ball without gloves. The way the younger kids kind of gravitated towards our players outside the stadiums, you could see their eyes light up, and we’re not even the big leaguers.”
The Spiders soaked up as much of Cuban culture as they could during their seven-day visit. They were treated to a walking tour of Havana that included visits to churches, forts, museums and other important historical sites in and around the capital city.
Dr. Dixon Abreu, a professor in the university’s department of Latin American Latino and Iberian studies, accompanied the team, serving as interpreter, historian and guide. Abreu, a former professional ballplayer, joined several other professors in briefing the team before the trip on Cuba’s past and present political climate, preparing them as much as possible on what to expect.
Senior outfielder Michael Morman was particularly impressed with the pride the Cubans take in their country, despite primitive and often harsh living conditions.
“It’s obviously very different than here in the U.S.,” said Morman, a preseason third-team All-American and reigning Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. “Things are a little more rundown, a little more dirty. Even with that, the people definitely had a lot of pride in what they own, their houses, property and everything. They try to take care of it as best they can.”
Woodson (above right) gives several of the players’ parents credit for the fundraising efforts of the trip. In less than a month, the team raised $115,000. Several families made the trip, including Woodson’s wife and nine-year-old son.
“We went to a couple of the parents, and they loaded us up,” he said. “We were very fortunate, because we wouldn’t have made it without that.”
The baseball experience was as eye-opening as the cultural education. The Cuban Federation of Baseball arranged four exhibition games between the Spiders and Cuban professional teams of different levels. Olympic-style opening ceremonies were held at each venue before every game, and players negotiated trades of items from the other’s squad.
Woodson was pleasantly surprised to see his team play well against Cuban competition, winning three of the four games. His lineups were determined before the trip, with the projected everyday starters playing at least three of the four games along with the young players.
“With the younger guys we have, I didn’t know if we’d even win a game,” Woodson said.
Even before the U.S. and Cuba restored full diplomatic relations last summer, trips by American college sports teams were not unprecedented. Between 2000 and 2008, four NCAA Division I baseball teams visited the Latin American country, including Washington, Tennessee, Southern California and Alabama. Division II schools Grand Valley State and Tampa visited in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
Last June, Princeton’s track team competed in Cuba against several B squads. Coastal Carolina’s men’s basketball team visited in August, while the Penn State baseball team played exhibitions against teams from Cuba’s premier baseball league this past November.
The NCAA allows schools to take international trips once every four years. Woodson would love the opportunity to visit again, and envisions a more modernized Cuba in the near future.
“Imagine going three or four years from now and seeing if there’s a McDonald’s, Starbucks, or whatever,” he said. “I think that would be the difference, in (American) restaurants, things like that.”
For Mormon, the trip was a humbling experience.
“You don’t take for granted as much of what you’ve got here,” he said, “and how much you actually do get spoiled.”