Piedmont students travel to experience legendary Cuban baseball

As spring break began on April 6, ten Piedmont Middle School students and their families boarded an overnight flight to Havana, Cuba, loaded down with baseball gear and eager to experience legendary Cuban baseball.

“We were just 90 miles from Florida,” said Carolyn Stewart, mother of seventh grader Aidan Stewart. “But as soon as we stepped off the plane, we felt like we were a world away.”

The Piedmont families were in awe of the wildly unfamiliar sights — streets full of classic cars, once-grand mansions crumbling into the sea and endless images of Che Guevara — but it was at the baseball field at Santiago “Changa” Maderos stadium where the magic of the trip happened. 

The Piedmont team played four baseball games over four days against competitive Cuban teams and while interpreters helped bridge the language barrier between umpires, coaches and players, the kids quickly realized that everyone spoke the universal language of baseball. Five Cuban 14 year old players joined the Piedmont team and friendships formed quickly and everyone seamlessly became teammates. 

The Piedmont team at Estadio Santiago “Changa” Mederos baseball stadium. Pictured: Clemens Conrad, Jack Dahling, Dylan Toyama, Ben McMurtry, Josh Campuzano, Ryan McMurtry, Zachary Cha-Foster, Orion Sachs, Aidan Stewart, Jonah Cha-Foster, Mason Gray

The opponents’ families offered a taste of Latin American sports fandom with lively chants and cheering and a very distinct horn that blared loudly from their side of the stadium. The many curious onlookers looking through the fences at each game and an official visit from Charge d’Affaires Benjamin Ziff, who oversees the US Embassy, emphasized the importance of our presence and the cultural exchange to our hosts.

The US Charge D’Affaires Benjamin Ziff talks to the Piedmont players 

On the third day of play, the Piedmont team took a break from competition to train with Cuban coaches. The boys engaged in a variety of drills over three hours of training and even though the drills were familiar, being coached by former professional Cuban baseball players and hearing old lessons offered in another language in a faraway place was a unique thrill. Seventh grader Ben McMurtry commented that “we mostly already knew what they taught us but it’s pretty cool that the baseball players in Cuba do the same drills that we do and are learning the same stuff.”

Training session with Cuban coaches

Baseball Beyond Borders, a Bay Area youth sports non-profit founded by former Cuban professional baseball player Michel Rodriguez, also organized cultural sightseeing trips that showcased the host country. Families got to see a lot of Havana in six days and experienced the  hospitality of the Cuban people. The group walked the cobblestoned streets of Old Havana and learned about many historic plazas and sites while street vendors tempted the hot and tired kids with sugar coated churros and plantain chips. A lively rumba show at twilight on the rooftop of an old Colonial building offered picturesque views of the city and lessons in the quintessential Cuban music that is steeped in history and African origins. 

Players and families in front of the San Cristobal de La Habana Cathedral in Old Havana

Seeing the beautiful grand architecture in various states of grandeur and disheartening decay was a lesson in the repercussions of politics, economics and history. The kids gawked at the brightly colored 1950s American classic cars turned taxis and many got to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime ride.

“Our son Orion had endless questions about how this very different society worked (and didn’t),” said Jonah Sachs, father of one of the eighth-graders. “He even started thinking of ways to help the Cuban people by improving the relationship between our countries.”  

The Stewart family touring Havana in a classic car

Families took advantage of their free time exploring Havana, walking along the famous Malecon, shopping at the artisans market, seeing the old haunts and home of Ernest Hemingway and even ventured into the countryside to see the Vinales Valley and its famed tobacco farms. And, no trip to a hot tropical Caribbean island would be complete without a day at the beach playing in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Team day at Santa Maria del Mar beach was a highlight of the week.  

Trip organizer and mom of two of the players, Judy Lin, reflected, “This was our first time doing something like this and I had no idea what to expect. Both the baseball and cultural exchange  exceeded any expectations we might have had. I think everyone came away from the trip knowing they experienced something pretty unique and special.” 

The culmination of the baseball experience happened on the last day of the trip with the final baseball game and closing ceremonies. After many fun and dusty days on the baseball field, the Piedmont players were eager to finally gift the Cuban players an abundance of gear and apparel that families brought to share. Bats, gloves, cleats and heaps of clothing were presented to many grateful players and kids individually swapped baseball uniforms. Our players came home with a unique souvenir of their time in Cuba to go along with all the memories they had together.

Eighth grader Jonah Cha-Foster summed it up, “It was fun to play on a team with my brother Zachary, to practice Spanish with our Cuban teammates, and to see a different style of baseball played. I liked traveling to a country that felt like we were going back to another time, driving around Havana in classic cars and dancing the rumba. The best part though, was seeing how excited the Cuban players were about the 11 bags of donations we brought.”

7th grader Ben McMurtry gifts a baseball bat to a Cuban player at the closing ceremony
Successful uniform swap between 7th grader Mason Gray and Cuban player

Group photo with Cuban team after the final game
The grand architecture and classic cars of Havana

Thanks to everyone who bought a Cuba fundraising hat. Or gave donations of gear and clothing for the trip and to our local sponsors Hillside View Orthodontics, Matt Heafey – Heafey Baum GroupWest Coast Sporting Goods, and Zachary’s Pizza, to help make it all come together, we are thankful. 

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