In what will be rare visit since the U.S. embargo nearly 50 years ago, a youth team from the Upper Valley will play baseball in Cuba this summer.
The 11- and 12-year-olds from the Connecticut Valley South Little League are planning a series of games in August with their Cuban counterparts, said Ted Levin, a coach who spearheaded the effort to take the players to the Caribbean island.
After several failed attempts, Levin finally received a travel license for the team from the U.S. Treasury Department. Because of the U.S. embargo of the communist island, most U.S. citizens are prohibited from traveling to Cuba.
Levin said the 14 players represent eight of the nine teams in the Connecticut Valley South Little League, with seven players making last year's all-star team, which finished third in the state. The players are from Vermont and New Hampshire.
He said the 10-day trip starting Aug. 8 is not sanctioned by Little League International headquarters in Williamsport, Pa.
"I called them up for advice and they wouldn't even talk to me," Levin said Friday when he tried to broach the subject of the trip to Little League officials.
Calling themselves the Twin-State Peregrines, for the migratory birds that nest along the Connecticut River Valley and winter in Cuba, the team hopes to play 12 to 14 games in the Havana area. Additional games may be scheduled. Six coaches, who will double as chaperons, will make the trip as well.
"We're hoping to play at least one a day and at least several doubleheaders," said Levin of Thetford, whose 12-year-old son, Jordan, is one of the players making the trip.
The idea for the trip sprouted two years ago when Levin, a freelance writer and Vermont Public Radio contributor, was brainstorming an idea for a fun trip for the Little Leaguers. He hit upon Cuba, a country he visited in 1993 when he was researching a story for Audubon Magazine.
"It was close, it would be affordable," he said. "Being a naturalist, it's a very green country and they love baseball."
But the road to getting the young baseball players to Cuba was lined with pitfalls. The U.S. government tightly restricts travel to Cuba, a policy that's been in effect since shortly after Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries overthrew the right-wing dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
After 20 months and several failed attempts, Levin finally crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's to the U.S. government's satisfaction and received a travel license in late March.
Helping in the process is fellow coach and Dartmouth College professor John Carey, a Latin American expert. Carey's son, Sam, is also a member of the team.
Levin also credited Vermont's three-member congressional delegation and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie's office with helping to obtain a travel license from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Dubie, a Republican who has made two trips to Cuba as lieutenant governor, said Friday such a trip will foster goodwill.
"I believe it will lead to a better and more secure world and I believe it's through grassroots connections of people-to-people and baseball teams playing one another," Dubie said, "that we expand our understanding and that's consistent with the objectives of our initial trips to Cuba."
Levin also singled out Florida businessman John Parke Wright IV for his ongoing assistance. It was Wright, a frequent traveler to Cuba, who brokered the first sale of Vermont cows to the island three years ago.
"It wouldn't happen without him," Levin said of Wright, who is helping to finalize arrangements in Cuba. "It just wouldn't happen."
Dubie and Wright met this week in Washington, D.C., with Jorge Bolanos, chief of the Cuban Interests Section and that country's most senior diplomat. The United States and Cuba do not have diplomatic relations, so the interests sections of both countries is the only contact between Washington and Havana and function under the auspices of the Swiss Embassy.
Wright said baseball diplomacy of "developing Little League friends between Cuba and the United States is a great home run for all."
Cuba is a mystery to most Americans, an image that has been colored by 50 years of often acrimonious relations between the two countries.
Levin said a couple of parents expressed minor concerns about the trip. "For many people, going to Cuba is like going to Mars even though it's only 90 miles from Key West to Havana," he said.
Major League baseball teams routinely played exhibition games in Cuba but that stopped in 1959 when Castro took power. Forty years later, the Baltimore Orioles returned to Havana to play a Cuban all-star team. According to Carey, the Dartmouth College professor, the upcoming trip is rare occurrence. He said the only similar trip by youth players since the U.S.-imposed embargo in 1961 was by a California team in 2000.
In an e-mail, a spokesman for Little League International wrote that the only league "to be chartered there since Fidel Castro's dictatorship began is at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo."
The Vermont-New Hampshire players are in the early stages of raising the estimated $45,000 to cover the cost of the trip. Levin said the hope is to have the players outfitted with new uniforms for each game that would then be given to players on each Cuban team. He said the fundraising effort will also aim at corporate donations from national companies. The team has established the nonprofit Hanover Baseball Association to handle donations.
The 14 Little Leaguers are going to play baseball in a country that produces some of the world's best players. But Levin also said it will also be an educational experience.
"They're not only going to learn some great baseball and have fun playing baseball but I'm a naturalist so they're going to hear a lot about Antilles evolution and bird life there," he said, "and John (Carey) is a Latin American scholar so they'll hear about the colonization of Cuba by the Spanish and America's relation to Cuba through the years."
The Vermont players are from Thetford, Norwich, Fairlee and Corinth. Representing New Hampshire are players from Hanover and Lyme.
Contact Bruce Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.MORE IN Wire News
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