2 Nations, 1 Pastime

 In Stories

By Eric Kaufman

In 1962, during the height of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy imposed a trade embargo on Cuba, effectively severing all diplomatic ties and instituting strict trade and travel restrictions between the two nations. For over 50 years those restrictions remained in place until, in 2016, President Obama agreed to ease travel limitations and begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba, which lies approximately 90 miles off the southern coast of Florida.

For Aron Levinson, who recently led a 12u team from West Torrance, California, on a father-son trip to Cuba that was equal parts baseball and outreach, immersion into the Cuban culture began at an early age. “My best friend, Juan Fuentes, is of Cuban descent. … Growing up around Juan, I was always surrounded by the Cuban culture, including the food and late-night dominos in the garage.”

In 2007, Levinson’s admiration of Cuba’s rich history and culture manifested into a series of part-baseball, part-humanitarian trips, including one which set into motion his most recent visit. “The idea of bringing a youth team was sparked by an encounter at a pro baseball game in Matanzas, Cuba, where I ran into a youth Canadian baseball team coordinated by Bill “The Spaceman” Lee of the [Boston] Red Sox. I saw them behind home plate in uniform and we were in Dodgers uniforms after playing adult games around Matanzas.  I asked them how it was going, and they said it was great, although they were getting beat pretty handily by the Cubans.”

The idea continued to germinate, and Levinson began recruiting local fathers, sharing his own experiences of past trips, and eventually assembling a team of baseball ambassadors who were ready, willing and able to embark on an historic trip.

“I told everyone I knew in Cuba about our dream to play youth baseball and to teach our boys the power of giving: to open their eyes to another part of the world, to see how others live, to understand how fortunate we are, to embrace the unknown and to personalize the adventure I’d shared with so many of them over the years, via videos and photos.”

In the months that followed, the team raised the necessary money, made the necessary arrangements, and secured a flight from LAX to Havana that had only been available since January.  Then, for the first time since President Obama loosened American travel restrictions with Cuba – and, perhaps, for the first time since President Kennedy imposed them – a group of American youth baseball players crossed the Straits of Florida to engage its peers in our shared national pastime: beisbol.

The American team was greeted at the ballpark in Cienfuegas, Cuba, with high-fives and smiles from their Cuban counterparts, and following an elaborate pre-game ceremony, which included the recitation of the Little League Pledge in both Spanish and English, it was time to jugar a la pelota (play ball)!

Right off the bat, the American team began with a base hit, and Levinson says he knew the kids would compete. He adds: “[And] when Troy arrived at third base and high-fived the Cuban third baseman, I knew we were going to experience the power of sports and unforgettable international relations.”

Part of those international relations involved donating gear to the Cuban players, whose equipment, Levinson says, is often worn down, with many kids playing in tennis shoes or taped-up cleats, torn uniforms or old gloves. And, in the case of one player, a batting glove fashioned out of an old wrist band. Thanks to a sponsorship from Louisville Slugger, the American team was able to come bearing gifts, including bats, gloves, catcher’s gear and mini-bats.

Still, Isaac Levinson, Aron’s son, observes that the difference in gear had no effect on the Cubans’ enthusiasm once the games started. “The first thing that I noticed about playing against the Cuban kids is that they love the game. They actually smiled and laughed when they played. The kids don’t argue about bad calls or what kind of gear that they have. They don’t care. … The Cubans are just very good baseball players who can play just like us.”

While the game is the same, there are some differences in how the Cubans teach it. For example, Levinson explains that pitchers don’t start throwing curveballs until the age of 14. Instead, they are taught to locate the fastball and master the cambio, or change-up. The chatter on the diamond is loud and constant, with coaches shouting, “Down and ready!” and “Move on the pitch!” several times per inning. Small ball is also heavily incorporated, and the Cubans are aggressive on the bases. In addition, Levinson notes that the fans are also loud and fun. He recalls one Cuban player who jogged to first base after a walk only to be reproached by his mom, who shouted, “In Cuba, we hustle on the field!”

In all, the American team played four games that week, coming from behind twice, walking off once, and suffering only one defeat. By the end, some of the kids were exhausted while others wanted to stay for another week. But for Levinson, who says the Cuban sports officials want the American team to return in December for an international baseball tournament, the trip was an unmitigated success. “Hearing ‘thank you’ felt good, but my reward was seeing the dads bond with their sons, our boys becoming baseball ambassadors while representing our country, the community and their family name – all in a place hard to describe and better seen with your own eyes.”

To be sure, the scores of the games may eventually fade, but what will remain are the memories: the sounds of Cuban kids and coaches playing the same game in a different language; the smell of chicken, beans and rice at El Alijibe in Havana; the sight of the scoreboard, which denotes runs with a C instead of an R, spelling out CHE (to honor national icon Che Guevara, Levinson points out) and the pride of participating in an historic cultural exchange which will inform the worldview of an exceptional group of kids – both American and Cuban – for a lifetime.

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Story by Eric Kaufman – Baseball Youth | Twitter:  Baseball Youth

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