St. Thomas University baseball coach Jorge Perez traveled to his ancestral home of Cuba for the first time last month, and his trip filled him with a number of emotions — and sadness was chief among those feelings.
Here are 10 observations on Cuba from Perez and two of his Team USA players: Texas A&M infielder Braden Shewmake and East Carolina left-hander Jake Agnos:
▪ 1: There are no street lights, even on main highways, and there are no reflectors on the roads either. “If you drive at night, there had better be a full moon,” Perez said. “And there are potholes everywhere. You can’t drive in a straight line or your car will get destroyed. Their cars are in great shape, and given the potholes and the lack of resources, I don’t know how they do it.”
▪ 2: Other than taxis, there isn’t much traffic because few Cubans can afford cars. “I saw some Russian cars and also a few people using horse-and-carriage,” Perez said. “That’s how far behind the times they are.”
▪ 3: Musicianship is still alive in Cuba. Perez said that, from the top of his hotel, he could hear “phenomenal” salsa bands every night at the near-by bars and restaurants.
▪ 4: There are Cuban flags everywhere as well as billboards with quotes from communists such as Raul Castro and others. “It’s a form of brainwashing, constantly,” Perez said.
▪ 5: During one game, play was stopped in the middle of an inning because some Cuban officials arrived at the stadium. Time was called, and every Cuban player got in line to shake hands with the dignitaries.
▪ 6: Perez saw no kids playing baseball on the streets but did witness soccer. “I’m not going to say baseball will disappear in Cuba, but it’s cheaper to play soccer,” Perez said. “Even the players on the national team were asking us if we had any left-over bats or equipment.”
▪ 7: Agnos said one of the highlights in the baseball series was a play made by Cuban right fielder Yoelkis Cespedes, brother of New York Mets star Yoenis Cespedes.
Yoelkis caught a ball on the warning track and unleashed a throw home that never traveled higher than five feet and nearly caught the runner on a sacrifice fly. “That guy has the strongest arm I’ve ever seen,”Agnos said.
▪ 8: Perez, however, was not overly impressed with the Cuban team. Team USA had played Japan earlier this summer, winning three of five games.
“The two teams are complete opposites,” Perez said of Japan and Cuba. “Japan is like a machine, very structured. They slap at balls. They battle.
“The Cuban players jog things out — not a lot of hustle.They swing wildly.”
▪ 9: Shewmake, who played second base for Team USA, said he was amazed at the age of some of the Cuban players.
“In the last game, their starting pitcher was 38 years old,”said Shewmake, who is 20. “We were told they brought in some guys who were playing pro ball in Canada and Japan.”
▪ 10: Shewmake and his teammates didn’t find much in the way of souvenirs in Cuba.
“They had t-shirts, but they were geared toward Castro,” he said, “and we wouldn’t wear that stuff here.”
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