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
Stadium).

(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
Denning.

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
States.

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