Tommie fans hoop and
holler with enthusiastic Cuban crowd

Text by Jim Winterer
Photos by Roger Rich

HAVANA A visit by Cuban
President Fidel Castro to the University of St. Thomas-University
of Havana baseball game Wednesday seemed likely.

The tip-off came as soon
as the Minnesota media contingent arrived at the impressive Estadio
Latinoamericano (Latin American Stadium) the morning of the game.
Their bus stopped in front of the stadium, but was quickly directed
to another entrance around back. The dozen or so reporters and cameramen
were escorted into a small suite of offices.

Batch by batch, their bags
and camera equipment were taken into another room, the door was
locked and the gear was inspected. When the inspections were completed,
a scruffy-looking small dog was escorted from the office. "It
smells for explosives," one guard explained.

A few minutes later a Cuban
journalist explained, "This amount of security is very unusual.
It usually is only done when Fidel Castro shows up." Visits
from the Cuban president are rarely announced in advance; apparently
he just shows up.

As it turned out, he never
did make it to the park. On hand, though, were Jose Ramon Fernandez,
one of Cuba’s four vice presidents, and Fernando Vecino, the country’s
minister of higher education.

The
Rev. Dennis Dease described the day as "one in a million. I
wouldn’t have missed this for anything. I just can’t believe it
… it’s still a little like a dream."

Dr. Alan Sickbert, dean
of student life, had similar feelings. Just about a year ago, during
a discussion he had with a Cuban faculty member, the idea of the
game first came up. "Wow, it really happened, and it turned
into something so much more than just a baseball game. This is just
wonderful."

That "something so
much more" was reflected in Dease’s pre-game remarks (he gave
them in

Spanish) and the response
they drew from the 6,000 fans. "It is already too cold in Minnesota
and there is a lot of snow. For that we are happy here in Cuba because
of the warm climate and most importantly because of the warmth of
the Cuban people."

That drew huge cheers from
the Cubans, but nothing compared to later in his remarks when he
said, "Our hope is that we can return soon to Cuba. We hope
and we pray that when this happens, we will find the boy, Elian
Gonzalez, here with your people."

The Cubans were gracious
and friendly even after the game. When the Tommies filed out of
the stadium a crowd of more than 100 mostly young men stood politely
behind a fence to see the team board the bus back to the hotel.
They were respectful and polite, but as the bus pulled away many
of them flashed the "thumbs up" signal to the team.

It was a super day for a
ball game. Temperatures were in the 70s and just enough breeze kept
the Cuban and American flags snapping as they were carried onto
the field by both teams for the pre-game ceremonies. (Each team
was escorted onto the field by a beautiful young woman in skin-tight
pants, a common sight down here, but not something you’d ever see
at an MIAC ball game.)

National anthems were played
for both countries, Cuba’s first, followed by the Star Spangled
Banner. There was more music, too. Before and during the game a
band in the stands belted out lively Cuban timba music. Hey, it
was as much fun as the "Put Me In Coach" song cranked
out in the Metrodome.

Just before the game, the
Cuban coach told reporters that no matter who won, "we already
are winners just by having you here. This is a very old dream for
all of us."

Playing in the national-league
stadium was a massive honor for the Cuban team; no member of the
Havana team had played there before. "It’s a monster, it’s
like it would be for St Thomas to play in Yankee stadium."

UST Coach Dennis Denning,
in his pre-game comments, mentioned that the last game the Tommies
played was in June in the Division III world series. "Hey,
we don’t want a two-game losing streak here."

When the game finally began,
there was probably more action in the stands than on the field.
Baseball is a passion in Cuba, and fans here let everyone in screaming
distance know how they feel about each pitch, strikeout, catch and
especially errors and runs. Emotions at everyday Cuban games match
the fervor saved for really wild World Series games back in the
United States.

A small contingent of Tommie
fans parked behind the UST dugout, and they held their own against
the Cubans with plenty of hoops and cheers every chance they got.
A couple of dozen U.S. students who stopped in Cuba as part of the
Semester at Sea program cheered for their home team. The group included
four St. Thomas students, all juniors – Karen Zimny, Matthew Tande,
Erin Thompson and Sara Walburg. "This is my first Tommie away
game," Thompson said.

"This has been so exciting,"
Zimny said. "It has completely changed my view on some things
and made others more concrete. It would seem that the Cubans should
be mad at us for what our country has done to them. But they want
you to know that while they don’t like what the government is doing,
they don’t equate that with individual Americans. They want to get
to know us individually and they want us to understand them, too.
That’s what is happening here because of what St. Thomas is doing."

It didn’t take any beer
to bring this crowd to life. They don’t sell it at the stadium.
But there are goodies, and compared to the astronomical prices charged
at U.S. stadiums, food at Cuban ballgames is almost free. You can
buy a huge round meat pie, about a foot in diameter, or a large
piece of pizza, for about a quarter. Popcorn will set you back a
dime, and a tube of peanuts runs a nickel … which also is the price
of a ticket to a major-league game down here.

After
the game, the team and the rest of the St. Thomas group headed for
a celebration (they would
have celebrated even if they lost) at
the Copacabana hotel and disco on a beach just west of Havana.

It’s also going to be a
late night Thursday for many members of the St. Thomas contingent.
Jan. 27 is the date of an annual midnight torchlight parade honoring
the birthday of the late Jose Marti, revered here as the intellectual
father of the Cuban revolution. This year’s Marcha de las Antorchas
is dedicated to the return of Elian Gonzalez.

Several thousand marchers
are expected to show up for the march that begins at the square
(it’s like the St. Thomas lower quad) of the University of Havana.
They will be led by Juan Vela Valdez, president of the university,
and Dease. Other members of the St. Thomas group will be invited,
but not required, to join the half-hour procession that ends at
a museum dedicated to Marti.