Members of a Cuban university baseball team, interested in renewing friendships and seeking a little revenge, will visit the Twin Cities and the University of St. Thomas Saturday, May 6, through Thursday, May 11.
Equipo Caribe (Team Caribbean), a team comprised of players from the University of Havana and a nearby technical college, Polytechnic Institute Jose Antonio Echeverria, will face the Tommies in a game at noon Tuesday, May 9, in the Metrodome.
The game is free and open to the public.
It will be the third time the two teams have met this year, and the Havana squad will be looking for its first win. The Tommies traveled to Cuba for a week this winter and faced Equipo Caribe on the sun-drenched fields of the Estadio Latinamericano (Latin American Stadium) on Jan. 26.
Six thousand loud and enthusiastic fans saw a thriller. The Tommies scored once in the first inning, followed by six innings of closely matched, scoreless play, before adding six runs in the eighth. The final score was 7-0, and everyone wished it could have been closer. “We wanted to beat them,” said St. Thomas player Dan Novak, “but it was like playing your friends.”
In the second game on Jan. 28, not open to the general public, St. Thomas had the game under control by the third inning and cruised to a 10-1 victory.
The St. Thomas trip marked only the second time that a U.S. college or university baseball team played in Cuba since the 1959 Cuban revolution. The other U.S. college-level team to play on the island since Fidel Castro came to power was Johns Hopkins University in 1986. (Last spring the Baltimore Orioles became the first U.S. professional team to play in Cuba since 1959.)
Having a Cuban university team play in the United States is equally as rare. The only other time since the revolution that a Cuban team played in the United States against a university team, by coincidence, was in the Metrodome in April 1987. That year, the Cuban National Team was invited to participate in the Wheaties Tournament of Champions. Others competing in the round-robin event were the University of Minnesota Gophers, UCLA, Michigan and Maine, which was the only team to beat the Cubans. The Cuban National Team does not represent a university, but for the Wheaties tournament, the team only used players between the ages of 18 and 22.
The Tommies finished second nationally last year in the NCAA Division III; so far this spring the team is 10-8 overall and 3-1 in conference play. Baseball is a national passion in Cuba and Equipo Caribe can be expected to field a team with some of Cuba’s top university-level talent.
About 60 Cubans are scheduled to make the May 6 trip to Minnesota; most of them are from the University of Havana, and for most it will be their first visit to the United States.
St. Thomas sent about that same number when it traveled to Havana last January. About 30 of the St. Thomas group were baseball players and coaches; the remaining 30 were faculty and staff who are involved in academic and research projects with colleagues from Cuban colleges and universities.
The Carl and Eloise Pohlad Family Foundation has provided a $100,000 grant to help fund the exchange visits; the grant provided $65,000 to help send the St. Thomas group to Cuba, and $35,000 to help underwrite the Cubans’ trip to Minnesota.
The St. Paul-based CSM Corp. and its president, Gary Holmes, are contributing housing and other assistance for the Cuban team during its visit to the Twin Cities.
During its week in Havana, the St. Thomas group enjoyed not only baseball, but an array of cultural activities and opportunities to forge new friendships. This time it will be St. Thomas’ turn to play host, and the university has planned a busy six days for the Cuban visitors.
Although their itinerary is still being fine-tuned, the Cubans will tour the Twin Cities, visit the Minnesota Science Museum and Mall of America, attend a Twins game, take a boat ride on Lake Minnetonka and attend classes at St. Thomas.
Also planned for the Cubans is a trip to the second floor of the Ramsey County Courthouse to visit a bust of the late Jose Marti, revered in Cuba as the father of its independence from Spain. The bust was presented by Cuba to the city of St. Paul, the home city of U.S. Ambassador Robert Butler, “in appreciation of his courageous work in creating a warm feeling between our two countries.”
The baseball and academic exchanges between St. Thomas and 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 a decade ago. More recently, in November 1998, he traveled to Cuba with Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Miriam Williams, coordinator of the university’s Cuba initiatives. That trip laid the groundwork for a January 1999 trip by 17 St. Thomas faculty and staff, and the trip by 60 from St. Thomas in January 2000.
Dease has called the exchange efforts a unique opportunity, in part, because Cuba has been closed for so long to Americans. It allows St. Thomas faculty and students to see foreign policy at work, he said, as well as what life is like under socialism. He and his counterpart at the University of Havana, Dr. Juan Vela Valdez, signed a formal agreement of cooperation during a ceremony in Cuba last January.
St. Thomas faculty members in the fields of biology and environmental studies, journalism, geography, foreign languages, business and international management, economics, software engineering and computer science, theology and social justice are now involved in Cuba-related projects. At least two St. Thomas professors are planning to lead January Term courses in Cuba, and this fall several Cuban scholars will teach on the St. Thomas campus.
During the week of the Cuban baseball visit, St. Thomas also will host a visit and talk by Fernando Remirez de Estenoz, chief of the Cuban Interests Section (similar to an embassy) in Washington.