Grosse Pointe Avengers Youth Baseball's Cuban Adventure: A Cultural Immersion

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The teenage baseball team from Grosse Pointe takes in a performance from singing performance during their trip in Cuba on Aug. 2, 2017. Video by Joe Cullen/Special to DFP

Colin Mulcahy hitting against a Cuban pitcher with La Plaza de Revolución in the background in Havana, Cuba, on Aug. 3, 2017.(Photo: Courtesy of John Cullen)

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This is the second in a three-part series written by John Cullen, a 16-year-old Grosse Pointe Woods student journalist. Cullen’s travel baseball team, the Grosse Pointe Avengers, was believed to be the first Michigan youth team to travel to Cuba since the communist island country’s revolution ended in 1959 and the U.S. imposed travel restrictions, which have been lessened in recent years. The Avengers arrived in Cuba Aug. 1 and returned to the U.S. on Aug. 6.

HAVANA -- We arrived at the field,  mentally prepared for our game. It was something my 16-under travel baseball team, the Grosse Pointe Avengers, had done countless times throughout Michigan. However, exiting the bus on Aug. 3, I knew immediately this experience was unlike anything my teammates and I had ever encountered.

The game was played adjacent to the Plaza de la Revolución, or Revolution Square. Government buildings surround the manicured green field and this is the famous location that includes the huge outlines of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, as well as the tall José Martí memorial. This made for an almost surreal visual, being described by my teammates as if it were out of a video game. The field was perfectly chalked and red, white and blue bunting hung along the infield fences. Near the entrance of the field, many Cuban citizens were lined up and happily watching us as we entered, many of them greeting us with “Hola” and  high-fives. I thought was  special because of how excited they seemed to be to see us and watch us play their local team.

Speaking of the local team, this was the first time we had full clarity about our opponent. In Havana, there are 15 local baseball teams. The team we were playing was a collection of the best 13, 14, and 15-year-old players from those teams. Included in this, we learned later, were four players who played for the Cuban National Team.

More: Grosse Pointe Avengers youth baseball's Cuban adventure: A nervous arrival

We went through our normal routine for warmups; the event we had been waiting for all summer was upon us. I would be lying if I said I didn’t take a couple looks over to the other foul line to see how these players warmed up, played catch, and just acted in general. Their organization and repetition were obvious, and they were clearly great baseball players who loved playing. As a team, they all seemed to enjoy playing the game. However, they were not goofing around. They were super-focused and doing their best to win the game. As far as the coaching, it didn’t seem too different from what youth baseball fans and parents would be used to here. They gave signs, instructed the batters and pitchers on what they were doing wrong, and appeared to add motivational words. The one difference I noticed was  the coaches did not tolerate mistakes and definitely let the players know if they did not play well or lacked focus. For example, the first error of the game, and one of the only during the whole week committed by the Cubans, was by the leftfielder. He was removed the next inning and did not see much action the rest of the week.

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Peter Loch, left, and Eli Cate, right, walk down a side alley in Old Havana, Cuba, with members of their Michigan-based youth baseball team on Aug. 3, 2017. (Photo: Courtesy of John Cullen)

A memorable start

The opening ceremony started at 10 a.m. Both teams, sporting their respective flags, walked to the middle of the infield and prepared for the national anthems of both countries. Instead of just a simple speaker system for this, an entire band was on the field, consisting of no less than 15 members. First, the Cuban anthem was played, followed by the U.S. national anthem. The band also played “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and one more traditional Cuban song. Following the performance, a local dance team of various ages and dressed in red costumes took the field in front of the pitcher’s mound. They did a unique show that seemed to be a theatrical mix of dance and karate, lasting about five minutes, that everyone thought was really neat. It was an honor to have such a big welcome and have so much positivity and fun surrounding the game.

Finally, it was time to play. The Cuban team took the field and the game was ready to start. We had three umpires, including, we were told, the only female umpire in the entire country. First up to bat for us was middle infielder Will Leonard, who jumped on a fastball and started us off with a single. This hit was really nice for us, and gave us a lot more confidence. It was like our whole dugout breathed a sigh of relief. After that, Peter Loch had a hard hit, and Joey Rheaume drew a walk. Just like that, the bases were loaded, no outs, and I was up to hit. I hit an inside fastball and it dropped it between second base and the rightfielder. Just like that we were up 1-0. We tacked on two more and went into the bottom of the first with a 3-0 lead.

Unfortunately, this was our peak for the game. The Cuban pitchers’ incredible control and accuracy, combined with their hitters’ ability to drive the ball was too much for us. It stayed somewhat close for half the game, but Cuba ended up winning 20-4. The hitting I mentioned included a 14-year-old hitting a ball easily 50 feet past the fence in rightfield, which was 300 feet and about 20 feet high. It was clear these kids were talented players who, through combination of natural talent and lots of practice, come ready to play. As far as highlights for the Avengers, Eli Cate hit a Victor Martinez-style single off the top of the fence in right field that was inches away from being a home run. Both teams shook hands after the game, then the Cuban team practiced because they still had the field for an hour.

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Grosse Pointe Avengers coach Brian Kruger speaks to his team before its first game on Aug. 3, 2017, in Havana, Cuba. (Photo: Courtesy of John Cullen)

Cultural clarity

After playing nine innings in the Havana heat when we typically only play seven-inning games in the U.S., I was in search for a shower and sleep. However, my itinerary didn’t allow them. While baseball was  the impetus for our journey to Havana, the cultural experience and the opportunity to learn more about Cuba and its people was what most of us looked forward to most.

On Aug. 2, the day before the first game, we visited a local dance studio performance and toured the Museum of the Revolution. The performance, done by the Rosario Cardenas Dance Company, was impressive and the entire team enjoyed watching it. After they did a show of modern dance, players, parents, and siblings were invited on the stage to give the dancing a try. This was lots of fun and made for a lot of good laughs and videos. Then, we spoke with the dancers, players tried their Spanish and dancers tried their English. We learned a lot, including that they practice 6 hours a day and about 10 months out of the year. It was unique and upbeat. As for the Museum, located in the former Presidential Palace, I enjoyed some of the artifacts. One of the things that stood out and was a mural of former Cuban president Fulgencio Batista with U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. This was far from flattering as it depicted George W. Bush with a Nazi hat and him reading a book upside down. To me, this showed how far I was from home and showed the distaste the Cuban government has had for the U.S. I also encountered armed Cuban soldiers at the museum. At one point, a teammate of mine stepped too close to an artifact and the guard whistled at him to back up. To me, the presence of these guards and their demeanor was disconcerting. Although they never did anything aggressive, seeing the Cuban guards eyeing me down definitely put me on my best behavior.

As for other cultural experiences, we took a trip to Old Havana to walk around and tour, and Vocal Luna Chorus gave our team a choir performance. The trip through Old Havana left me wishing even more time was devoted to this portion of the trip. First of all, seeing all of the historic buildings, accompanied with small shops and restaurants was one of my favorite visuals of the trip. We also were able to interact with locals on the street. Near the beginning of the trip, an older man, wearing a Boston Red Sox cap, came up to a smaller group of us and showed us that he loved baseball and liked our hats. He happened to be deaf so he went out of his way to find some paper and write down this message on a piece of paper. After this, we met two kids who were playing with a ball in the middle of a town square of Old Havana. They were using an old soccer ball and a trash can to play basketball. They invited us to play and try to make some shots. This was when we learned it was good we all played baseball and not basketball. We were nowhere close to making any shots, and the two kids seemed to have the most potential on the court. The energy the two kids possessed and the fun they had with limited resources or materials was eye opening. They made the most of what they had.

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John Cullen and his family will travel to Cuba in August as part of the 16-under Grosse Pointe Avengers baseball team. Cullen will chronicle his trip for the Detroit Free Press. Video by Carlos Monarrez/DFP

Exceeding expectations

As for the chorus, it was made up of two separate kids choirs, including an all boys choir. The other was mostly made up of girls. Separately, they took turns singing a couple songs for the audience, made up of our entire group and all of the performers’ proud parents and family members. I thought this was neat because it appeared that it was a really big deal that they were performing for Americans and their parents seemed to have immense pride in the entire event, with several filming it with their phones and video cameras. The choir director invited us to join them on stage and the team and some parents made their way forward to perform a traditional Cuban song. Brian Kruger, our head coach turned composer, and our two lead soloists, Peter Lianos and Peter Loch, were the headliners of this show. Interacting with the Cuban people was a unique opportunity.

By this point in the trip, I knew what we were taking part in was truly special. I would be lying if I said my teammates and I weren’t skeptical when we saw a dance performance, museum tour, and vocal performance on the itinerary. But our coach and parents encouraged us to take in the full experience and our tour guide really did a great job of educating us about Cuba, its people and culture. The baseball to this point in the week was competitive and tough, but the interactions we had with locals was interesting, informative, and unexpectedly open.I knew the trip would be fun going in, but my expectations were blown away about half way through the trip. After this, we had two more games left to play, and a lifetime’s worth of memories to pack into the final few days in Havana.

Source : http://www.freep.com/story/sports/high-school/2017/08/13/grosse-pointe-youth-baseballs-cuban-adventure-cultural-immersion/561709001/

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