Cuban players join HarbourCats, but aren’t allowed to play games in U.S.

The Caribbean, in both history and culture, can be divided between the baseball islands and the cricket islands. The differing vibes are instantaneously recognizable.

There will be plenty of the baseball vibe in evidence this summer at Royal Athletic Park with the Victoria HarbourCats stretching the envelope in the West Coast League by recruiting two Cuban pitchers, the first players from that nation to play in the league.

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The HarbourCats have scoured the wider baseball-playing world in turning the WCL into the UNBL, as in United Nations Baseball League.

The language of international sport, particularly baseball, will be spoken this summer at Royal Athletic Park as the HarbourCats feature four Taiwanese players and the two Cuban right-handed hurlers in the lineup. The baseball world is wide enough that the International Olympic Committee re-admitted the sport into the Summer Games for 2020 in Tokyo, even though the best professional players will be unavailable to play.

The HarbourCats, who open the 2018 WCL regular season Friday night at home against the Wenatchee AppleSox, have exploited that world well.

The Asian baseball angle has already been mined, with Po-Hao (Bernie) Huang from last year’s HarbourCats team now on Taiwan’s national-team long list for Tokyo Olympic qualifying.

It’s the Cuban recruits who are the HarbourCats’boldest moves because of geopolitics.

Their Cuban visitor visas will not allow the pitchers, Alejandro Ortega Lopez and Adriel Quesada Peña, to travel to the United States for away games.

That means the lone league road games in which they will be able to pitch are the ones in the Okanagan against the Kelowna Falcons, the only other Canadian team in the WCL.

“So, our fans are pretty much assured to see the Cubans pitching a great deal this season at Royal Athletic Park,” said HarbourCats managing partner Jim Swanson.

It is a gamble well worth taking, say the HarbourCats, even if the Cubans are unable to play half the games this WCL season.

“We have the unique ability within the league, as a Canadian team, to be able to do this, and it’s well worth doing,” said Swanson, who has close ties to Cuban baseball through Baseball Canada and the Canadian national team. He also counts Fidel Castro’s son and Cuban Baseball Federation vice-president Tony Castro as a friend.

The WCL is a summer league for collegiate players, many from the NCAA Div. 1, to extend their seasons. Lopez, 20, and Peña, 21, qualify because they are students at Universidad de ciencias de la cultura Física y el deporte de Matanzas, translated as the University of Physical Sciences and Sports Culture of Matanzas.

“Education is free and baseball is a big part of [school life],” said Lopez, through an interpreter.

The connection came via the Chemainus and District Baseball League, which struck up a close relationship with the baseball association in the town of Unión de Reyes in the province of Matanzas.

The Chemainus association has sent Midget (ages 16-19) teams to play teams in Unión de Reyes, with the Cubans coming up last year with a team that played Midget-age ball teams all over the Island.

The exchanges led to a feeler out to the HarbourCats, who were only too happy to explore the possibilities of formalizing this diamond connection and taking it to another level by signing Lopez and Peña.

The Unión de Reyes 16-19 team will again be touring the Island this summer, with a game scheduled against the HarbourCats on July 30 at Royal Athletic Park.

So Lopez and Peña will be pitching against their Unión de Reyes teammates that night.

Unión de Reyes is managed by former Cuban national team catcher Saul Basallo Armas. The Unión de Reyes assistant coaches - Lazaro Apolinario Santana and José Luis Muñoz Pichardo - are also former players from the Cuban Nacionale Series.

“Our connection with Unión de Reyes is a mix of baseball and humanitarian,” said Rick Shay, vice-president of the Chemainus and District Baseball Association.

“We sent down 87 bags of baseball gear, hygiene products, clothes and shoes during our last trip down to play ball,” he said.

“We wanted to show our players a different culture. The motto of the exchange is ‘Friends Through Baseball.’It’s been an incredible opportunity for these kids.”

Sport has brought Lopez and Peña to Canada in an exchange that would not have been possible without baseball involved.

“This is an opportunity to come here to play ball in a sport that is in our blood ... it’s our national sport,” said Lopez, through an interpreter.

Baseball is to Cuba what hockey is to Canada, rugby to New Zealand, cricket to India and running to Kenya.

Cuba has never failed to make the championship game in the five Summer Olympics in which baseball has been played, winning gold at Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and Athens in 2004, and silver at Sydney in 2000 and Beijing in 2008.

“We had no chance, playing against the teams in Unión de Reyes,” said Shay, of the fierce opposition the Chemainus squads faced on their tours of Cuba.

“We got smoked.” But that was to be expected. The Unión de Reyes team placed second and third the past two seasons in the U-20 level of the Matanzas provincial championships. Making that sort of statement on a diamond in Cuba is saying something.

“Baseball in Cuba is like hockey here.

It’s the national sport,” said Shay.

“They take baseball more seriously than we do and they can play it 12 months of the year, unlike in Canada, where we have only a few months each year when we can play it.”

The Cuban HarbourCats are good and have dreams to match.

“We are dedicated to baseball in Cuba and disciplined at it,” said Lopez.

“We hang out with friends, but mainly we live and breathe baseball.”

“Our focus and concentration on the sport is stronger [than in Canada],” Peña said.

That sort of determination has led to Major League Baseball for 27 Cuban-born players who played in Major League Baseball in 2017, including Guillermo Heredia of the Seattle Mariners. There would be many more, if not for the dysfunctional relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. There were some promising breakthroughs and a real thaw during the Obama years - fittingly, aided by highlevel baseball diplomacy - that have now been rolled back by the current U.S. administration.

Some Cuban players have had to defect over the years in order to follow their MLB dreams. But several Cuban players are playing pro in Japan without having to go to such extreme measures.

Both Lopez and Peña said the pro game is their goal, whether with the Matanzas Cocodrilos in the Cuban Nacionale Series, or beyond. Asked if that meant possibly overseas as a dream, they answered: “Sure, if that’s what it takes.” The amateur game has brought them to play on the Island this summer, so who knows what the future holds? Lopez and Peña are accompanied this WCL season in Victoria by two of their Unión de Reyes coaches, Muñoz and Apolinario.

“Baseball is a great passion for us and a part of who we are. It’s an honour and a great opportunity for us, our players and our program to be representing our team, our community, our province and our country in Canada this summer,” said Muñoz, through an interpreter.

“We are very excited and greatly looking forward to it.”

Instructions shouted in English by HarbourCats coaches may be hard to follow at first for the Cuban pitchers, who only speak Spanish.

“Communication is difficult, but everything is possible through sport,” said their Cuban coach, Apolinario.

The Cubans are slowly getting acclimatized to a new culture. To help that along, and to bring a Canadian taste to their last baseball tour, the Chemainus players and coaches took road-hockey gear to Unión de Reyes for games of a different sort.

“The sad thing is, we barely won, even in road hockey,” Shay said with a chuckle.

Good athletes are good athletes, whether wielding a hockey stick or baseball bat.

Lopez and Peña have been trying to follow the Stanley Cup playoffs, but hockey can seem rather helter skelter for someone not used to it.

“I am still trying to understand it,” said Peña, with a smile.

One thing Peña and Lopez do understand - it’s almost in the genes - is a diamond.

They will get to know the one at Royal Athletic Park quite well this summer.

On the road, not so much, as the world of politics again intrudes on sport.

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