The late Jose Fernandez. Yasiel Puig. Jose Abreu. Major League Baseball has no shortage of talent from Cuba.
Over the holidays, a group of 13- and 14-year-olds ballplayers from Montgomery County are getting a little closer to their idols and engaging in some baseball diplomacy on a “good will” trip to the island nation.
A few days before they left for Cuba, some of the players on the unofficially named “Philly Kids” baseball team practiced their swings with a hitting contraption Steve Orlov’s living room.
In the basement, Orlov has stockpiled a few of the 30 duffel bags of baseball equipment traveling with the team and destined for baseball clubs they visit across the island.
“They’re loaded up with balls, bats, gloves, apparel,” he said, unzipping one. The trip, which was the brainchild of parents Andrea Weiss and Alan Tauber, has a manifold mission: education, cultural exchange, philanthropy, and, of course, baseball.
For the parents, the timing of the trip, as the U.S. and Cuba move toward normal diplomatic relations after decades of animus, adds interest. The team will meet with Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in more than 50 years, and some members took one of the first direct flights between Philadelphia and Cuba.
“It’s really about us going to Cuba before things change dramatically and to share American baseball that is very well known for producing professional baseball players,” said mom Jill Unruh.
Starting in July, the group raised around $3,000 to underwrite the trip and secured donations of equipment and goods from the Philadelphia Phillies and Herr’s. On Tuesday, they arrived in Santa Clara, on the eastern half of the island, beginning a weeklong trip to Havana, stopping to play four games and visit significant historical and cultural sites along the way.
The players, including 13-year-old Ilan Tauber, are thrilled to play ball in a place they’ve heard is wild for the game.
Mentioning an episode of a travel show he saw recently, Ilan said, “The whole town came to the little league game! Which is something you’d never see here. So I’m excited to see how many people come out.”
He said he’s also excited for the teams to swap players and trying playing with — not just against — their Cuban counterparts.
But there were some qualms. “I’m very, very picky — like very — picky,” said Ryan Orlov. “Any time we go out to dinner, I always get chicken fingers and fries.”
What the team encounters could change in the near future. Longtime head of state Fidel Castro died in November (his brother Raul had took the reins as president in 2008). Earlier that month, President-elect Donald Trump promised to refreeze relationships with U.S. island neighbor if the Cubans didn’t “make a better deal.”