SPIDERS IN CUBA Blog #2 - Getting Up Close With The Children

Junior men's basketball student-athlete Grant Golden, sophomore women's track student-athlete Kendra Smither, junior baseball student-athlete Tim Miller, junior field hockey student-athlete Abra Granger and redshirt freshman football student-athlete Nile Harris will take part in the immersive experience June 29-July 6 to Cuba as part of the International Education's EnCompass Program and Spider Athletics Global Leadership Initiative. The student-athletes will share their experiences on www.RichmondSpiders.com.

Blog #2

This morning began with a tour around Old Havana to learn of its historic past, which has also been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1982. We were able to see a lot of buildings and monuments with historical significance, with one of the first sites being the Plaza de Armas (Square of Arms). The Plaza de Armas is the oldest square in Havana, and dates back to the 1520s. It now presents as a beautiful attraction with a lot of residences, restaurants, and even an elementary school.

The most interesting thing about this particular plaza is that surprisingly, on weekends, it is not very full during the off-season, but on weekdays, it is full of school-aged children running around playing both during and after school hours. Even during our visit, we saw children playing tag, and also engaging in a friendly game of soccer. We found this very interesting because in the United States, it seems as though there are many children who do not spend as much time outside as they used to – even in school, we have the luxuries of having an indoor gymnasium, while these children’s playground is literally the outside. It seems as though as soon as school is out in the United States, many young students are glued to their computers, iPads, televisions, and mobile phones. The majority of Cubans do not have this luxury, which makes face-to-face relationships with each other in this country even much more meaningful. We walked throughout Old Havana for the majority of the morning and afternoon, seeing and learning so much about Cuba’s revolutionary past.

After we ate lunch at an amazing little paladar (privately owned restaurant), which has been featured in Newsweek Magazine, we continued our tour by walking to the Museum of the Revolution. This museum holds hundreds of artifacts from pre- and post- revolutionary times in a beautiful building, which is undergoing constant restoration. This seems to be the case in many parts of Havana – as many of these gorgeous buildings were deserted after the revolution. An interesting note within the Museum of the Revolution is the statue of Abraham Lincoln. We commenced to ask the question to our tour guide, why? – his response – he was such a well-respected figure within the context of American history that we believe he should be honored along with other important past Presidents from other countries.

Our day continued with a different type of history – The history of Cuban baseball. We walked to Parque Central, an amazingly beautiful park in the center of Havana to meet Reynaldo, the founder and head editor of a Cuban-based magazine called Universo Beisbol. Reynaldo’s magazine is also hosted in MLBlogs. Reynaldo wanted to first show us an area within this park called the “Hot Corner,” where baseball and sports fans meet every day to passionately discuss everything relevant to Cuba’s national sport. The gentlemen on the “Hot Corner,” were certainly lively, discussing and arguing about the varying sporting events from the previous day. It was really an awesome thing to see, and although we may not have understood every word they spoke, we too were welcomed into the conversation with open arms.

Coming from the United States, where sports are such a big deal, it was interesting to see this same type of dynamic play out in Cuba’s own unique way. Next, Reynaldo took us on his own personal tour of the spots in Havana with the most baseball history; his love for the game was evident. We were able to see everything from the stadium where Ted Williams played his spring training the year he hit .406 for the Red Sox, to the bar and hotel that Babe Ruth used to stay at when he played in Havana. These are people that we hear so many stories about and are legends in our eyes as people who appreciate the game of baseball. To see these icons have such a deep-rooted connection in the place that we were visiting was something outstanding. Hardly anything fancy, these professional baseball players, like the Industrialies, do not have the facilities we do in the states, yet – they remain resilient, always honing in on their craft. Seeing the training conditions of many of these professional athletes, certainly made us all thankful for what we have at The University of Richmond.

With multiple within our group being such big baseball fans, this was fascinating to learn and gain his perspective on the sport of Baseball. He was seemingly not only an expert on Cuban baseball, but also knew a ton about baseball in the United States, having visited on several occasions. Reynaldo even was familiar with the book and author we were provided pre-trip regarding the history of baseball in Havana – he loved reading parts of the text and especially enjoyed that they were signed by the author.

Something which really stood out that Reynaldo said to us was in response to the following question: Why did you fall in love in baseball and choose to begin writing about it? Reynaldo responded with a story about his youth. He said that when he was young, his father was pro-communism and his grandfather was anti-communism. Some of the only good memories he had with the two of them together was when they all listened to baseball games on the radio. He talked about how, regardless of their differences, baseball brought them together and made them forget about everything else that was going on in the world – they were happy. It made us think about how in our world, sports is one of, if not the biggest equalizer. Regardless of race, religion, political views, etc., people rally together around sports. It brings us together and builds long lasting relationships despite our differences.

Our day continued with the privilege of joining a local little league team in an area outside of Havana for their practice. As we drove to their field we passed the facilities where the Pan American Games were held and were able to see the village and stadium. We finally pull into a government owned housing neighborhood, and see the little field with the Little League team warming up. With much anticipation, we hurry out of the van to greet the youngsters, their coaches, and families.

They welcomed us with open arms, and were so happy to have us join them. The coach told us that he usually does not hold practice on this day, because it is a day to relax with family, but he said he knew he could not miss this interaction for his players. Pulling up to the field it was evident that these kids were not exposed to the type of playing conditions we are exposed to in America. Their outfield was full of soccer players using the grass for their own field, the infield was one big diamond of rocky dirt, and the dugouts were about big enough to hold a coaching staff of four, not a team of 15. There were no nets to protect the fans, and the stands were seemingly crumbling. The backdrop of their homes showed buildings that needed much care, a little paint, and many broken windows. Even though their training conditions, at least in our eyes were less than ideal, the moment we walked on the field and began interacting with the kids, one thing was very clear - although the playing surface looked a lot different, the game of baseball was still the exact same. As soon as we started playing, it did not matter that the grass needed cutting and you could barely see the painted lines - they found the same joy in returning to their dirty dugouts after scoring a run that we do after hitting a home run. And, even though they were only 12 years old, these kids were really, really good!

Tim was obviously a hit with these little leaguers, being the baseball player in the group. They were all ears when Tim spoke, begging for translation to help their skills. The kids’ parents were in the small set of bleachers behind home plate cheering us on as we were out there on the field playing with their children. The kids were very inquisitive and looked for any little way they could make an adjustment according to what they observed Tim doing…Nile wasn’t too bad himself either!

Regardless of the language barrier, we were able to communicate with the kids through the sport of baseball, and even though they had a team of 16, amongst them all, they had to share only two bats and two helmets for the entire group. Some of them even had to share gloves, and despite this fact, they were more than willingly to share with us as well. They oftentimes rushed up to us hoping we would choose their glove to use. The best part of the evening was seeing the faces of these young players light up when we brought them gifts. The pride they had and displayed with their new baseball caps is something that each of us as Richmond student-athletes should always have. The entire team invited us back anytime, with an open invitation – hopefully, someday we will be able to reunite again.

Our experience with these little leaguers was much more about culture than the game of baseball. The children had ripped gloves, dented bats, and torn up cleats. However, they had a passion for the game that outweighed any of those equipment issues. They would chase down any foul ball to save money for their team and had a total team mentality. If one of their teammates needed a bat, helmet or glove, they would give away their own in an instant. Their coach was also inspiring by the way he interacted with the kids and their families, really showing an investment in them and their futures, which are anything but guaranteed in Cuba. We hope to bring back the same passion for our sports no matter what our circumstance is or the venue we are playing. After seeing kids with such little means play like they had so much, it is safe to say we aspire to see our athletic teams at Richmond in the same way those children saw the game of baseball.

Gracias por leer,

Tim, Grant, Nile, Kendra, Abra


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