• UST baseball team to face Equipo Caribe (Team Caribbean) in Havana Wednesday

    UST baseball
    team to face Equipo Caribe (Team Caribbean) in Havana Wednesday

    After nearly a year of
    planning, the University of St. Thomas baseball team will have the
    chance to test its mettle against a team of top-notch Cuban college
    athletes on Wednesday, Jan. 26, in Havana.

    The Tommies, who finished
    second nationally last year in the NCAA Division III, will face
    Equipo Caribe (Team Caribbean), a team comprised of top players
    from both the University of Havana and the Polytechnic Institute
    Jose Antonio Echeverria, a nearby technical university.

    “I’ve heard they’ve been
    practicing,” St. Thomas Coach Dennis Denning said. “Baseball is
    the No. 1 game in Cuba, so I assume they’re going to be pretty darned
    good. I know it’s going to be a great game, but to tell you the
    truth, we’re not sure what to expect, and that’s part of the fun.”

    The Tommies have been
    practicing too, but indoors. They have been working out evenings
    in the university’s field house, with their last practice Friday
    night, Jan. 21. They report to the Hubert H. Humphrey Terminal of
    the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport at 4:30 a.m. Saturday,
    Jan. 22, for the four-hour charter flight to Havana. The Sun Country
    Boeing 727 is scheduled for takeoff at 6 a.m. CST and landing at
    11 a.m. EST in Havana. The team returns a week later, at 7 p.m.
    Saturday, Jan. 29.

    The Tommies will be able
    to shed their Sorels, parkas and choppers and practice in 80-degree
    sunshine for several days before facing Equipo Caribe. The game,
    one of only a handful played between Cuban and U.S. teams since
    Fidel Castro came to power about 40 years ago, starts at 2 p.m.
    EST Wednesday, Jan. 26, at the Estadio Latinoamericano (Latin American

    (A team from Johns Hopkins
    University played in Cuba in 1986, and last spring the Baltimore
    Orioles became the first professional team allowed to play in Cuba
    since the 1959 Communist takeover.)

    When not practicing, the
    21-member St. Thomas squad will be kept busy with cultural and educational
    outings. Their itinerary includes visits to historical sites, talks
    by Cuban professors, arts events, and time set aside to work on
    journals and reflect on experiences in a culture far different from
    their own.

    There also will be plenty
    of time for the Tommies to form friendships with Cuban students.
    “One idea we had to help them make friends is have our third baseman
    make a special effort to get to know their third baseman, and our
    left fielder get to know their left fielder, and so on,” explained

    While meeting new friends
    is the top priority of that plan, Denning will wink and tell you
    it’s also part of a plan to size up the opposition.

    How to play baseball isn’t
    the only kind of coaching the team members received in recent weeks.
    They’ve attended a series of orientation sessions on Cuban culture
    and how to be ambassadors for St. Thomas, Minnesota and the United

    Denning also has asked
    each player to assemble a gift kit to present to a Cuban friend.
    The $20 to $25 kits, paid for by the students, will include items
    difficult for Cubans to buy, like over-the-counter medicines, soap,
    socks and pens.

    The university will bring
    additional gifts, too, made possible in part through corporate generosity.
    Sun Country Airlines, by helping to underwrite the cost of a charter
    plane, is making possible additional room to bring the cargo.

    Georgia-based Mizuno USA,
    a large sports-equipment company, is helping to underwrite the cost
    of about $7,500 worth of top-quality new baseball gear that will
    be given to the Havana team.

    Denning, who has quite
    a stack of used baseball gloves gathered from his years as a Little
    League and high school coach, is bringing the collection to distribute
    to youngsters in Havana neighborhoods. Team members also are contributing
    their used gear to the cause.

    St. Thomas officials have
    lined up books and nonprescription medical supplies they will present
    to their hosts at the University of Havana.

    Much of the cost of the
    trip, and a possible return visit to Minnesota by the Cuban team
    next spring, is being funded by a $100,000 grant from the Carl and
    Eloise Pohlad Family Foundation.

    How a team from Minnesota
    wound up heading for a baseball game in Cuba, even at this time
    of political tension, can be traced to a longtime interest in Cuba
    held by the Rev. Dennis Dease, St. Thomas’ president, and a humanitarian
    trip he took to the island nine years ago.

    More recently, in November
    1998, Dease traveled to Cuba with Associate Vice President for Academic
    Affairs Dr. Miriam Williams, who has been coordinating the university’s
    Cuba initiatives. On that trip, they met with officials from the
    two Havana universities and laid groundwork for a trip to Cuba last
    January by 17 St. Thomas staff and faculty.

    It was on that trip, made
    to explore possibilities for academic and cultural relationships,
    that the idea for a baseball game was suggested to St. Thomas’ Dean
    of Student Life Dr. Alan Sickbert.

    “They asked about our
    athletics and said it would be great for us to come down and play,”
    Sickbert told The Aquin, the student paper at St. Thomas. “They
    love sports in Cuba