Shirts hang at Evans Park in Duncan during the Cuban baseball tour in 2018. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Cuban baseball journey takes a different twist for Island players

Touring team prevented from any game action at the start of COVID-19 restrictions

Baseball players from the Island came out of their 14-day self isolation on April 3 after a tour to Cuba ended without playing any games.

The latest chapter in the Cuban/Vancouver Island Baseball Journey Society’s saga took a strange twist amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Coach Doug Cornett of Duncan had assembled a solid team of 13 players from Duncan, Chemainus, Crofton, Salt Spring Island, Nanaimo, Courtenay, Campbell River and Gold River to give the Cubans a run for their money at their favourite game, but didn’t get the chance.

Many of the players gathered in Victoria March 9 and the team departed for Cuba the following day, travelling from Vancouver to Calgary and on to Varadero, Cuba. A total of 45 people, including the players, made up the group.

“At the time, there was not really much talk about COVID-19 and in no way was there any thought that it would impact our journey,” noted Aniela Hankins of Duncan, the team’s media person and parent of one of the players.

“If it had been two days later, we wouldn’t have went,” said Rick Shay of Crofton, who’s been the primary architect of the ongoing exchange between Union de Reyes and Vancouver Island baseball players. “Things ramped up on the 12th or 13th.”

There had been three confirmed cases of Italian travellers testing positive for COVID-19 in Havana by that time, Shay indicated.

“The Cuban government immediately shut down all the stadiums and ball fields,” he said.

Despite that, “we stayed the whole time,” Shay added. “Everything was just crazy. You couldn’t do anything. We just hung out and stayed at the resort.”

“This trip did not follow our planned itinerary, but we traversed the uncharted territory like champs,” added Hankins.

Five games had been planned against five different teams and the opportunity to play in Matanzas on the oldest operational baseball field in the world had the team pumped.

But the first morning there when the team met for a practice not too far from the resort the plans were altered significantly.

Cuban coach Saul Basallo and a liaison for the Cuban contingent on the ongoing exchange relayed the bad news that the Cuban government would not allow any play ball games on the fields or stadiums.

“We are grateful to Saul for his repeated attempts to try and find a way for us to play, but alas, it was not meant to be,” Hankins indicated. “For many it was even more disappointing as we had a humanitarian project planned for the stadium in Union de Reyes. Through generous donations, we had the opportunity to purchase a batting cage that was shipped from Wales. The batting cage took a different journey and not all parts arrived at the same time, so this project will be completed by the ball team in Union de Reyes once it all arrives.”

The players all knew the decision was made for the right reasons to cancel the games.

“This thing is bad news,” said Shay. “It’s not much to give up to keep on living.”

“As we all now know, this virus was much bigger than we could have ever anticipated and the Cuban government was simply protecting everyone,” added Hankins in a post-trip Facebook post. “As much as we were disappointed, we are also very grateful to the government. This has been another chapter in this journey that warms the heart as our crew weathered it out, stuck together, and still managed to create memorable moments with the boys from Union de Reyes. We would be lying if we said we didn’t all feel the fear at some point, but it seemed that all found peace and gratitude and were able to let it all unfold as it would.”

“We did get out to Union de Reyes one day,” added Shay.

The trip home was a long one from Varadero to Toronto with a four-hour layover and then to Calgary with another seven-hour wait before getting back into Victoria.

“Keeping ourselves safe and coming home to Canada was a much longer trip than originally planned due to travellers everywhere trying to get home,” Hankins indicated. “We appreciate the airline and airport staff for keeping us informed and getting us home as safe as possible. We also want to extend our gratitude to Karen Kloosterman, our travel agent, for helping to get us all home safely before the borders closed.

“This comes with huge gratitude to our community and all the business and organizations that were so giving and helped us to fundraise for this trip and the humanitarian project. Where the next chapter in this journey takes us we do not know. We do know that we have much to be grateful for and we are open to all that unfolds.”

“There’s always next year,” reasoned Shay. “We hope to go back down there.”

The tours between the two groups started in earnest in 2016 in Cuba. The Union de Reyes players paid a return visit with numerous games against Island teams in Chemainus in 2017.

More players from around the Island were brought into the fold in 2018 and a trip to Cuba in the spring was followed by a return visit with games in Duncan in late July and August. In 2019, the visiting Cubans played games in Duncan, Victoria and Courtenay and went to an international tournament in Grand Forks as well as experiencing action against the Victoria Harbour Cats.

Rick Shay and wife April are currently undergoing a second 14-day self isolation period after April underwent surgery on April 6.

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Life’s a beach in Cuba. In order for the Island players and Cubans to spend any time together, they came and stayed at the same resort for one night. Much fun was had by all. (Photo submitted)

Baseball players from the Island spent more time on the beach in Cuba since they couldn’t play any games there in March. The boys from the Island and the Cubans at least got together at the beach. (Photo submitted)

The majority of the Island team at a dinner in the resort. Cuban women also made a nice spread for all to enjoy. During that time, there was a presentation to Rick Shay and some of the other families that have been supporting the team. (Photo submitted)

Players from the Union de Reyes Champion team along with the Island players and coaches. (Photo submitted)

Baseball players from Union de Reyes, Cuba during their visit to Chemainus in 2017. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Rick Shay has long been the main organizer of the ongoing exchange between Vancouver Island and Cuban baseball players. (Photo by Don Bodger)

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