University of Tampa team plays ball in Cuba

The University of Tampa's 2013 NCAA Division II championship baseball team is in Cuba this week for a bit of baseball diplomacy.

The UT Spartans, who arrived Sunday, faced Havana's Industriales Blue Lions youth team in an exhibition game Wednesday and won 2-1. The team has two more games this week against other teams in Cuba’s 16-team national league.

So far, the group of nearly 50 team members, staff, and some parents have toured historic and cultural sites, met with students at the University of Havana, and talked baseball with retired Cuban players, said head coach Joe Urso in a telephone interview from Havana.

The Spartans aren’t in Cuba in any official capacity, but rather are on a people-to-people exchange — a type of trip that allows Americans to travel to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo. President Barack Obama authorized such trips, which aren’t supposed to be travel junkets but rather meaningful exchanges with the Cuban people, at the beginning of 2011.

Like many people-to-people exchanges, the trip is quite scripted and packed with tours, but Urso said the team still has had many opportunities to interact with Cubans.

People come up to you “when you walk around with a group of men in baseball shirts,’’ Urso said. “We’re only on day three and we have met more people and we haven’t even played a game yet,’’ he said Tuesday night. “This has been a great cultural experience for our university.’’

One of the highlights, said Urso, was a meeting with former Cuban major leaguers in an area of Havana’s Central Park called the “hot corner,” where the retired players gather every afternoon to reminisce. The Tampa Spartans and the old-timers swapped baseball stories for more than an hour, said Urso.

Tampa assistant coach Jose Jimenez, a graduate of Monsignor Edward Pace High School, in Miami, acted as translator. “He’s been our biggest help,” said Urso.

“It is very interesting to see the people of Cuba, as they are just as interested in our culture as we are in theirs,” Zach Gawrych, a senior and captain of the team, was quoted as saying on the Spartans’ website. “People have welcomed us with open arms. People were excited to see us and actually cheered us as we were getting off our bus.”

During dinner Monday night, the team met Victor Mesa, a legendary Cuban centerfielder who is now manager of the Matanzas baseball team. He invited the team to watch Matanzas’ playoff game Thursday and promised to bring the Tampa players to the field after the game to meet his players.

The trip was two years in the making but the team only learned it had the green light for an eight-day visit on Dec. 13, so it was a bit of a scramble, said Urso. The team returns to Tampa on Sunday.

The Spartans, who finished the 2013 season with a 47-12 record, take on the Artemisa Cazadores (Hunters) in an exhibition game Friday, and face the Mayabeque Huracanes (Hurricanes) in their final game in Cuba on Saturday.

“It’s the first time any NCAA Division II championship baseball team has ever come to Cuba,’’ said Bill Hauf, president of Island Travel & Tours, the charter company that took the team to Cuba. But two other NCAA teams — Alabama and Grand Valley State — have visited the island.

While many Miami-area politicians don’t support travel to Cuba and the Miami City Commission has approved a resolution urging Congress to pass legislation opposing people-to-people exchanges as long as Cuba continues to violate human rights, Tampa politicians have generally been more supportive.

Economic-development officials from the Tampa Bay area have actively explored how Tampa might benefit from future ties with Cuba, and the first charter flights from Tampa to the island in nearly 50 years began in September 2011.

Read more Cuba stories from the Miami Herald

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