Bristol youth enjoys baseball diplomacy
BRISTOL — “What our players and what the Cuban players … did in those six days did more for government relations between our two countries than has been done in the last 40 years by the governments,” Little League baseball coach Jim Carter said.
Carter, retired University of Vermont baseball coach and grandfather of Bristol 12-year-old Carter Monks, was referring to the trip that he, Monks and 10 other Vermont Little League baseball players made to Cuba last week.
“That’s pretty dramatic for me to say that, but they were so well received it was just unbelievable,” Carter said.
The Vermont team — composed of players from Bristol, Burlington, Essex Junction and Shelburne (including one female athlete, Anna Jenemann of Burlington) — traveled with four coaches, including Carter as head coach, and 14 accompanying parents and siblings on a tour sponsored by the Burlington-based Cuban American Friendship Society.
They spent their April spring break in Havana, learning about Cuba’s intense passion for baseball, seeing cultural and historic sights, getting to meet some of Cuba’s best professional baseball players, making new friends despite language barriers and playing baseball against local teams.
For first baseman Carter Monks it was the trip of a lifetime — despite a dislocated knee that put him into a cast and on crutches for much of the week.
“I just kept enjoying the experience,” said Monks, interviewed at his Bristol home shortly before the cast came off this week. “I could have been ‘poor me’ but instead it was like ‘lucky me, I’m in Cuba.’”
Monks said that for him the highlight of the week was the opportunity to get to know fellow baseball players from Cuba.
“After every game we would go and have dinner with the other team. And what that meant is that a Vermont player would sit with two or three Cuban kids and then another Vermont with more Cuban,” said Monks. “To me the interactions that we got to have with those kids — working with language barriers, us not speaking much Spanish, them not speaking much English, a lot of hand signals — I thought that that was the highlight. Just showing how much we cared and how much they cared.”
Aside from two days traveling to and from Havana, the itinerary unfolded in roughly the same way each day. In the mornings, the Vermonters would see the sights or go to the José Martí Center for a cultural presentation sponsored by the Cuban counterpart of the Cuban American Friendship Society. These included presentations on sports and on the history of baseball in Cuba, trips to see Ernest Hemingway’s country estate, walking around Old Havana and taking in the colonial architecture, listening to street music, touring Cuba’s largest professional baseball stadium, watching the gleamingly restored classic American cars from the 1950s drive past, or just going to the beach.
After lunch, the team would spend an hour or so warming up and then play against a team of 11- and 12-year-olds from Cuba. After the game, the Vermont and Cuban teams often exchanged jerseys. The Vermont team brought multiple sets of jerseys in bright colors to give away. Plus the group had raised funds in Vermont to bring everything from dental floss, pencils and Life Savers to baseballs, gloves, cleats and batting helmets to give away to their Cuban counterparts.
After every game, the Vermonters and Cubans, kids and adults like, would all share a meal together. Evenings, the American group might take in more sights.
Little League coach, baseball dad and Burlington attorney Tom Simon, one of the coaches on the trip, explained that in Cuba youth baseball coaching is an actual, fulltime job — not a volunteer activity. Excelling at sports is an important component of Cuban national identity, he explained, and the slogan for all Cuban sports programs is “Victory is your duty.”
The path to excellence is arduous and, by American standards, narrow. Serious young athletes, said Simon, have to choose one sport to specialize in. The municipal teams (four of which the Vermonters played against), practice two hours a day, seven days a week. The best-of-the-best provincial teams (one of which the Vermonters faced) practice six hours a day, seven days a week and serve as farm teams for professional baseball, said Simon.
“Put it this way, I have never seen 11-year-old kids play baseball like those kids who were on the provincial team,” he said. “One of them is considered the best catcher in all of Cuba for his age group. And another of them is considered the second-best pitcher in all of Cuba. The second-best pitcher, I got to warm him up between innings with a catcher’s mitt, and he threw lasers. Thank goodness every pitch was right on the money. When I took the catcher’s glove off, my hand was pink and swollen just from catching four of his pitches.”
He figured those pitches clocked at something like 95 miles an hour.
Not surprisingly — given the rigors of Cuban athletic training — the Cuban teams won every game vs. the Vermonters.
Monks said that playing against such excellent peer athletes was a great way to learn.
“I learned from them, like just watching their motions. Everything about them just clicked,” he said. “They were so good. They practice so well. They’re so well coached. There’s such a love for baseball.
“They were such good teams, it made us play better,” Monks continued. “And you could clearly see how much better we got throughout the week.”
Monks said it was so fun that it didn’t feel competitive.
“I’ve never felt so good about losing — the whole team felt that way,” he said. “We were playing against these really enjoyable, fun kids.”
Monks, who attends Red Cedar School, came to Cuba well prepared, having done a month-long independent study on the Cuban trade and travel embargo, in place since 1960. Monks found he was often able to answer questions about Cuban-American relations, even to the adults in the group.
His school research gave Monks perspective.
“I really understood how huge this was for me to be able to go there,” he said. “It was like as soon as I stepped down (off the airplane) it was just magical — so few Americans have had the chance to do this. That really hit me: how unique it was.”
Even though his research had prepared him to see poverty, Monks said he was surprised to realize that the average pay in Cuba is around $40 a month, and that a dentist or an engineer might end up driving a taxi because there’s far more money to be made from tips in the tourist industry than from those professions.
Like so many visitors, he was deeply moved by the vibrancy of Cuban street culture — especially the music and dancing — and by the warmth with which ordinary people embraced him and his fellow Vermonters.
Monks, Simon and Carter all described the numbers and enthusiasm with which locals — kids and adults like — flocked to see the week’s series of Cuban-American baseball games.
Part of that, Monks thought, was that both sides share a love of baseball.
“It’s huge here in the U.S. but I think that in Cuba baseball has really been the sport,” Monks said. “It’s like it’s one of the main things that really ties people together.”
One of the ways that their Cuban hosts honored the Vermont Little Leaguers was by playing the American national anthem (along with the Cuban anthem) before every game. As Monks, Carter and Simon were all careful to emphasize, this was only the third time that the American anthem had been played in Cuba since the U.S. embassy closed in 1961. The other two times were when the U.S. embassy reopened in July 2015 and when President Obama visited in March — quite an honor for a group of grade school and middle school athletes.
Hearing the American national anthem and coaching baseball in Cuba was especially emotional for Monks’ grandfather — and coach — Jim Carter.
Born in 1942, Carter remembers the Cuban baseball superstars who played in the American professional leagues when he was growing up.
“They were tremendous players,” he said. “Camille Pasquale is considered the best curve baller ever in Major League Baseball.”
Carter also remembers how, as a young college student, he watched the black-and-white television sets blink on in his college cafeteria as President John F. Kennedy announced the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“For the next 13 days we held our breath,” said Carter. “It’s stuck in my memory all these years.”
Carter said he didn’t think he’d ever go to Cuba. And when he stood on the playing field and heard the U.S. national anthem being played, he said he found himself shedding “tears of joy.”
While Carter is not uncritical of many aspects of modern Cuba, he wonders why the United States continues as the only country in the world with its embargo.
“I think the door is opening more and more … and I applaud President Obama for this. And hopefully what we did is just a little bit more of opening the door,” said Carter. “To think that a country that we’ve had such a history with and that is 90 miles from us — that’s from here to Bennington for crying out loud.”
Editor’s note: See more photos from the trip online at cubabaseballtrip.wordpress.com.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].
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