A busy week is in store for 60 Cubans who will be in the Twin Cities May 6 to 11 to play baseball, renew friendships and, for most, see life in the United States for the first time.
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 University of St. Thomas in a game at noon Tuesday, May 9, in the Metrodome.
The game, free and open to the public, marks only the second time since the 1959 Cuban revolution that Cuban and U.S. university teams have faced one another in this country. Tickets are not required; fans can enter the stadium’s Gate F, at Chicago Avenue and Fifth Street. Seating will be in the first deck surrounding the infield. Scorecards and background sheets will be provided.
MediaOne will televise the game live that day with coverage starting at 11:45 a.m. For most of the metro area served by MediaOne, the game can be seen on Channel 13. For cable subscribers in the city of St. Paul, the channel will be 25.
The game also will be televised live, or replayed later by tape, by MediaOne cable systems in Florida, Virginia, New York, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan and California.
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 in January and twice faced Equipo Caribe in Havana’s professional-level Estadio Latinamericano (Latin American Stadium). The Tommies won both games: 7-0 on Jan. 26 and 10-1 on Jan. 28.
“The first game was actually closer than the final score,” noted St. Thomas coach Dennis Denning. “Any number of times, if the ball had been hit just a few feet more to the left or right, it could have been a much different score for either team.”
The roster provided by the Cubans shows that they are bringing north a different head coach and several new team members.
“They were good in January, and we’re expecting to face an even better team in the Dome,” Denning said. “Just the anticipation is exciting, and however the game turns out, this is going to be a whole lot of fun, just like it was in Cuba. They were so nice to us, and now we’re happy to have the chance to be hosts in return. This is going to be a great experience for the Cuban players; for them to play ball in something like the Metrodome will be like heaven.”
When St. Thomas traveled to Cuba, it marked only the second time that a U.S. college or university baseball team played there 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 just 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. When they faced Equipo Caribe last January, they hadn’t played in a game in months. This time, the Tommies will be well-seasoned. They are 25-10 overall and 17-3 in the MIAC conference, finishing second in the conference behind St. Olaf, and will play in the four-team MIAC playoffs May 5-6 in Dundas.
About half of the 60 Cubans scheduled to make the May 6 trip to Minnesota are members and coaches of the baseball team. The other half are Cuban faculty and staff members, a number of whom are involved in academic and research projects with St. Thomas faculty.
St. Thomas sent about that same number of team and faculty members on its trip to Havana last January.
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 fund 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.
Sun Country Airlines also is supporting the project. One of its 727s was used for a direct charter flight to Havana in January, and will be used again for the return visit by the Cubans this month.
The Minnesota Twins and Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission are providing the use of the Metrodome for the May 9 game. The following day, the Twins will host a barbecue dinner for the Cuban and St. Thomas delegation at the stadium and will welcome them as special guests at a game between the Twins and Cleveland Indians.
Julio Becquer and Tony Oliva, both natives of Cuba and former members of the Minnesota Twins, will be part of the official delegation that will welcome the Cubans when they arrive at 3 p.m. Saturday, May 6, at the Hubert Humphrey Terminal. The Twins will present the Cuban ballplayers with gifts.
During their week in Havana, the St. Thomas group enjoyed not only baseball, but an array of cultural activities and opportunities to forge new friendships. St. Thomas is returning the favor with six busy days for the Cuban guests.
On Saturday evening, May 6, the premiere of “Two Cultures, One Game,” an hourlong video of the St. Thomas trip to Cuba, will be shown to members of both teams. Produced by members of St. Thomas’ Instructional Support Services office, Modern and Classical Languages Department, and Journalism Department, the video will be shown at 8 p.m. in O’Shaughnessy Educational Center auditorium. Also shown will be a video about the St. Thomas trip that was produced by the University of Havana. The program is free and open to the public.
Other activities planned for the Cubans include dances and receptions at St. Thomas, tours of the Twin Cities, b
owling, a post-practice stop at a Burger King, and a visit to the Mall of America. Thanks to some corporate contributions, the Cubans will be treated to rides at Camp Snoopy, a visit to Underwater World, lunch and a little spending money for gifts to bring home.
Time in the week has been set aside for seminars and less formal meetings between the faculty and administrators of the two universities.
Also planned is a visit to the second floor of the Ramsey County Courthouse to see a bust of the late Jose Marti, revered in Cuba as the father of its independence from Spain. According to a plaque on the bust, it 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.” Butler, who died in 1955, served as the ambassador to Cuba from 1948 to 1951. The Cuban ball players will be greeted at the courthouse by St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.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.
Dease and his counterpart at the University of Havana, Dr. Juan Vela Valdes, signed a formal agreement of cooperation during a ceremony in Cuba last January. Vela will be leading the group traveling to Minnesota, and will receive an honorary degree, doctor of humane letters, from St. Thomas at its Town and Gown Forum the evening of May 8. (The forum is an invitation-only event.)
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.
The Cuban delegation will leave the Twin Cities at 8 a.m. Thursday, May 11.