Play Ball! Tommies face
Cuban all-stars today

By Doug Hennes

HAVANA –. As much as the
University of St. Thomas baseball team has enjoyed the chance to
experience what everyone constantly says is a “once-in-a-lifetime
opportunity” to visit Cuba, that experience takes on a different
meaning today.

It is time to set aside
the receptions, the seminars on the Cuban economy and culture and
the tours of Old Havana, “and get down to business,” one player
said.

It is time to play baseball.

The Tommies will take the
field at the 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano at 2:30 p.m. (EST)
today to play a team of all-stars from the University of Havana
and other higher education institutions. Estimates vary greatly
on the size of the crowd; one Havana radio reporter expects 5,000
fans and university officials predict as many as 30,000.

Coach Dennis Denning and
the Tommies will go into the game with two weeks of practice – eight
sessions in climate-controlled Coughlan Field House on the snowbound
St. Paul campus and three days in the 75-degree sunshine of Havana.
Over breakfast on Tuesday morning, Denning talked about how ready
his team is to play an important game against an esteemed opponent.

“I’m comfortable . . . and
I’m not comfortable,” he said.

“I’m comfortable in the
progress we’ve made in such a short time, but I’m very uncomfortable
with where we are offensively. We will be in trouble if they have
good pitchers, especially hard throwers, and our scouting report
says their pitchers are good. I’m apprehensive about our hitting.”

It usually takes a couple
of months for the Tommies, who haven’t played since the NCAA Division
III title game last June, to round into shape. Under normal circumstances,
St. Thomas wouldn’t begin indoor workouts until Feb. 1, and here
it is about to play a team that began its season last November.

“Rhythm is so important
in every aspect of baseball,” Denning said. “Once you get into a
certain rhythm, individually and as a team, the game is different.
You can spot it when you got it, and we don’t have it yet.”

Denning also is concerned
about the little things on which a game can turn. His teams – four
MIAC champions in five years at St. Thomas and six state champions
in 17 years at Cretin-Derham Hall – have been peerless when it comes
to mastering basic skills and fundamentals, but he still worries.

“Bunting, handling rundowns,
going from first to third – it takes many hours of practice to pull
all of those things off, he said. “We haven’t had those hours. We
just have had to jump over a lot of it.”

All of those laments aside,
Denning exudes confidence. He told a Radio Havana reporter after
the Tommies’ 90-minute workout Tuesday morning at Estadio Latinoamericano
that his message to them would be to play with the same kind of
passion that marks Cuban baseball. He delivered that message a few
minutes later.

“Come in here hustling,
playing with passion and enjoying yourselves,” he said.

The players are up for the
challenge. Brian Toov, a senior righthander from Austin, will start
on the mound. He was a staff ace as a sophomore but had arm trouble
last year and pitched sparingly in the regional and national tournaments.

Denning said he chose Toov
because he has “ice in his veins,” and the biology major shrugged
and smiled about the remark.

“I don’t know where that
one came from,” he told reporters, but he has a simple strategy.
“Just throw strikes and let them hit it.”

Toov likely will be relieved
first by Brian Edstrom, a sophomore from Totino Grace, and then
senior captain Mike Honsa (Cretin-Derham Hall).

“It’s all a little overwhelming
right now,” Honsa said. “We finally got into the stadium today,
and seeing everything here . . . well, we just want to play ball.”

Denning and his coaches
couldn’t agree more.

“This is not something we
have to win,” Denning said. “I know I’m expecting too much,
but I still don’t want to be disappointed. We have pride in our
team, and doggonit, we want to play well. Our performance won’t
be because of lack of effort.”

Click
here for the UST starting lineup

Click
here for Odds and Ends about the trip