Cuba Trip Makes Lasting Impact On Rice

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For the Rice baseball team, history came alive the moment Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died.

The Owls were in Havana this past November for a 12-day trip that was to include five games against Cuban Baseball Federation teams as well as an exploration into the history and the culture of the tropical-island nation.

Before making the trip, every player on the team took a course, “Trends in Contemporary Cuban Culture”, which was taught by Dr. Luis Duno-Gottberg, an associate professor at Rice and also the chair of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American studies.

But about 48 hours into the trip – in the late evening hours of November 25 – the team found out that the 90-year-old Castro had passed away.

This was no longer history in the abstract or a sterile classroom experience. These young men were actually in Cuba when Castro’s death made world-wide news.

“It was a historical event,” said Rice outfielder Cody Staab, a native of College Station, Texas. “When I saw it on the news (in my hotel room), I almost didn’t believe it. I was thinking, ‘There’s no way this happens the week Rice Baseball shows up.’

“I had an uneasy feeling, not knowing what was going to happen. Some countries don’t react well to their leader dying. I was kind of scared. Were people going to go crazy in the streets?”

As it turned out, there was no violence.

But things did change. For example, the bright and lively nightclub across the street from Rice’s team hotel suddenly went dark and quiet.

Castro’s brother, Raul, announced that the country would observe a period of mourning that would last until Fidel’s Dec. 4 state funeral, which took place one day after Rice departed Cuba.

Rice had beaten a local team, Artemisa, 4-0, upon its arrival. But the remaining four games were cancelled.

Owls lefthander Evan Kravetz, who is from Miami and grew up surrounded by the city’s huge Cuban-exile community, said the scene following Castro’s death was “insane.”

He noted with interest two entirely different reactions to the same bit of news.

“I have a lot of Cuban friends, and I had heard the horrors of what happened there (after Castro took over following the 1959 overthrow of the previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista),” Kravetz said. “Many Cubans had to leave their families behind (in a search for freedom).

“But the morning after Castro died, all the hotel workers were in tears. Then you turn on CNN in your room, and they showed the people in Miami celebrating, banging pots and pans in the street as if the Miami Heat had just won the NBA championship.”

Academics First

Duno-Gottberg, who accompanied the team on its trip to Cuba, said the players were enthusiastic about their course work and engaged in spirited debates during class.

Rice, a university that prides itself on its academics, also required each of the players to write a daily journal while in Cuba, chronicling their experiences.

“My entry for my journal that night (Nov. 25) was 15 pages,” Staab said. “But in 30 years, I can look back at my journal and know that I was there the night Castro died.”

Staab said his paternal grandfather was in the U.S. Army around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when America was fighting a Cold War against Castro and his ally, the Soviet Union.

“The U.S. was trying to take (Castro) out for so long,” Staab said, “and now he dies when I’m there.”

The Owls pose for a photo in front of a statue of Jose Marti the heart of Havana (Rice Athletics)

Meanwhile, Duno-Gottberg, a native of Venezuela who has visited Cuba numerous times since 1994, said he would never take a class to the island without the students first studying the nation’s history and culture.

“If you don’t prepare the students, a trip like this could become trivial,” he said. “The class started with the 19th century. We tried to see how the country was built during colonial times.

“We were also very honest in showing where the (Cuban) Revolution failed. I wouldn’t call the approach of the course complacent at all.”

Rice’s Dane Myers and Dominic DiCaprio admire a meticulously preserved vintage car in Cuba (John Sullivan/Rice University)

While in Cuba, the players saw some of the best and some of the worst elements of the island, from the most beautiful, crystal-clear beaches they had ever seen to an epidemic of stray dogs roaming the streets looking for food.

They saw how the inventive Cuban people miraculously kept their 1950s-era cars in immaculate condition – “like a step back in time,” Staab said. But they also witnessed poverty and homelessness that was beyond their expectations.

Baseball Denied

Duno-Gottberg, who has been studying Cuba for more than 25 years and has written two books on the subject, said he remembers seeing the players in the hotel lobby after the games were cancelled.

“They looked restless,” the professor said. “But, much like the Cubans on the island, it forced them to be resourceful.”

Staab, Kravetz and catcher Dominic DiCaprio all said they understood the cancellations but were still crestfallen.

DiCaprio, who is from Coral Springs, Fla., said he was particularly hurt that the game against Havana-based Industriales – considered the New York Yankees of Cuban baseball — was cancelled.

“We had heard that they sometimes draw 50,000 people,” DiCaprio said. “It would’ve been an exciting game.”

Despite their disappointment, the Rice players did have a couple of fascinating baseball experiences in Cuba.

First came the win over Artemisa in which Rice pitchers Dane Myers (six innings) and Addison Moss combined on a four-hit shutout.

All three Rice players interviewed for this story said they were impressed with Artemisa. And all three players said the fans treated them well, cheering for great baseball plays – no matter who made them.

Kravetz remarked at how “smooth” and effortlessly the Cubans played and how much they hustled.

He also said that, in warm-ups, kids sitting in the outfield bleachers engaged him and his teammates in conversations.

“We started naming Cuban players in the major leagues,” Kravetz said. “We’d say, ‘Yasiel Puig’ or ‘Jose Abreu’ or ‘Yoenis Cespedes’, and they would say who their favorites were.

“The fans were so welcoming – it was mind-blowing.”

Staab said the Artemisa players were raw but extremely talented.

“We saw their middle infielders get the ball out of their gloves and get it to first in the blink of an eye – it was like sorcery,” Staab said. “We saw their right fielder, every throw he made was a frozen rope. All their outfielders put every throw right where it needed to be – like, wow, don’t run on these guys.”

The only reason Rice won, Staab said, was because of superior organization and execution of certain plays.

After the remaining games were cancelled, the Rice players also had a chance encounter with baseball. While visiting a tobacco farm, they saw three kids, ages 8 to 10, playing ball.

Several of the Rice guys asked the kids if they could join in, and the Owls were welcomed onto the field. Within minutes, word apparently got out because 20 more children arrived, wanting to play with the Americans.

“We played catch and pepper for about 45 minutes,” Staab said. “They had just one ball and some beat-up gloves. We were upset we didn’t have our equipment with us because we wanted to donate it to them.

“That was the only disappointing part. But it was an amazing experience.”

Band of Brothers

The Owls, who have made 22 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, advancing seven times to the College World Series and winning the CWS in 2003, are a force in college baseball.

And if they make a strong postseason run this season, perhaps the trip to Cuba will be one of the things that galvanized the team.

Members of the Rice contingent beneath a Cuban flag flying at half mast following the death of Fidel Castro (David Ruth/Rice Athletics)

“It was an unbelievable trip – once in a lifetime,” said Kravetz, an Economics major who is interested in attending law school. “We saw seniors hanging out with freshmen more than ever before. I think that’ll help us.”

DiCaprio, a Sports Management major, said the cancellation of the games actually made his team even closer.

“We had so much free time to explore and make memories,” he said. “I think we’ll look back and realize that we had one of the best experiences of our lives with each other.”

Staab, whose father has been a White Sox scout for more than 20 years, said technology – or the lack thereof – bonded his team.

“Because we couldn’t use our phones for anything other than checking the time, it forced us to bond with each other,” said Staab, a Sports Management major and possibly a future MLB general manager.

“We realized how unimportant our phones are and that it was a great opportunity to talk, play cards, play password.

“Normally on a team, everyone has their own little group. But I think our team is as close as it’s ever been because of this trip.”

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