Baseball

Cuban-American St. Thomas baseball coach going to island with Team USA

St. Thomas University coach Jorge Perez, the son of Cuban immigrants, will make his first trip to Cuba in July as an assistant for USA Baseball’s 2018 Collegiate National Team.
St. Thomas University coach Jorge Perez, the son of Cuban immigrants, will make his first trip to Cuba in July as an assistant for USA Baseball’s 2018 Collegiate National Team.

St. Thomas University coach Jorge Perez will serve as an assistant for USA Baseball’s 2018 Collegiate National Team that will play in Cuba July 13-18.

Getting picked for the staff as first-base coach is a rare honor for someone from an NAIA school. The other three coaches are either from NCAA Division I or the major leagues.

But it’s an even bigger deal for Perez, a 46-year-old native of New Jersey who is the son of two Cuban-born parents.

This will be Perez’s first trip to the island, which has been under Castro rule for nearly 60 years.

“I thought about (the trip to Cuba), and I got a little emotional just because I know the struggles of my family (in leaving their homeland),” Perez said.

“I’ve been a son who has always explored my parents’ lives and my grandparents’ lives. I was always interested in where I came from. Being in Cuba will be tremendously emotional.”

Perez was named to the staff by Team USA and LSU coach Paul Mainieri.

“Paul asked me if I had any issues about going to Cuba,” Perez said. “I told him that I have zero hesitations as long as I’m wearing the letters ‘USA’ across my chest.”

Mainieri, who attended Miami Dade College North and coached at St. Thomas before ultimately landing at LSU and winning the 2009 College World Series, has strong ties to South Florida and many friendships with Cuban Americans.

“I had qualms for many years about coaching against the Cuban national team,” Mainieri said. “I have too many friends in Miami whose families have been so affected (by the Castro regime). I didn’t want to do anything to promote the Cuban teams.

“But times have changed. Attitudes toward Cuba have changed. Once I got the OK from my close friends down there, I was OK to go.”

The other assistant coaches for Team USA this summer will be Brian O’Connor of the University of Virginia, Clif Godwin of East Carolina University and Jim Hendry, who is a special assistant to New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.

Mainieri, Hendry, Perez and USA national team general manager Eric Campbell all have ties to St. Thomas University as either graduates, coaches or both. In fact, Mainieri, Hendry and Perez have master’s degrees from St. Thomas.

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St. Thomas University coach Jorge Perez, far right, the son of Cuban immigrants, will make his first trip to Cuba in July as an assistant for USA Baseball’s 2018 Collegiate National Team. Kathy Hitchcock

All of that leads to a very inter-connected staff.

“There’s a great comfort with us,” Campbell said. “Everyone knows each other and trusts each other.”

Perez and the other coaches will report to Team USA headquarters in Cary, North Carolina, on June 24.

From June 28 to July 2, Team USA and the city of Cary will host the 18th USA vs. Chinese Taipei International Friendship Series.

Next, Cary will host the 42nd USA vs. Japan Collegiate All-Star Series from July 3-9.

Perez’s summer will culminate in Cuba with the seventh annual International Friendship Series.

“Even when I was being considered for the staff, I was honored that (Mainieri) thought so highly of me,” Perez said. “I’m excited. I think this will change my career and my life.”

Meanwhile, Mainieri said that when Campbell offered him the job to coach Team USA this summer he accepted under one condition: He wanted to pick his coaching staff.

“I wanted to do it with friends and coaches I believe in, and we want to win and represent the USA properly,” Mainieri said.

In selecting his staff, Mainieri drew on his experiences and his contacts.

Hendry, the former Miami Columbus head coach and the ex-Chicago Cubs general manager, is Mainieri’s best friend. Mainieri was Hendry’s assistant coach at Columbus.

O’Connor was Mainieri’s pitching coach at Notre Dame for nine years. And Godwin was Mainieri’s hitting coach at Notre Dame and again at LSU.

That left Perez, who got the last position on the staff, and Mainieri said there were several reasons why he was selected.

“He’s a tremendous coach — we frequently compare notes and give each other advice,” Mainieri said. “Secondly, I thought this would be a wonderful thing for St. Thomas, which is near and dear to my heart.

“Finally, the fact that Jorge is bilingual was important, with us going to Cuba. I’m sure there will be times where he can translate and put us at ease.

“On many levels, Jorge was the perfect choice.”

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