March 13, 2000
Ashley Steele was a member of the American baseball team that traveled to Cuba.
Preparing for Cuba was a little weird, too. On most trips, you know about where you're going. You know about the climate, language, and currency, but I felt like I was blindfolded. It was like spinning a globe and pointing somewhere. All I knew was there was a shortage of soap and toothpaste.
For this trip, we had to prepare mentally and physically. We were representing the United States, and everything we did in Cuba reflected on America.
I took that to heart. Because of the Elian Gonzales thing, I didn't know if the Cubans would shake our hands or spit on us. I hoped that our games would mean more than just wins or losses.
To get from Seattle to Havana took two busses, two planes, and nineteen hours. My brain was buzzing, but my body was exhausted.
Arriving in Cuba we were overwhelmed by the humidity. The buildings are deteriorating. My first impression of Cuba was that it was muggy, old, and small.
There was a lot of poverty. I thought the streets might be unsafe. Wrong. We were given smiles and a warm welcoming from everybody. Two words describe Cuban people: gentle and friendly.
I've seen poverty before. Unlike Mexico, where some American tourists are targets, Cubans never took advantage of me. They just wanted to sit next to me, wear my cap, and share some baseball cards and laughs.
The reality of Cuban baseball sunk in fast. Every Cuban player had a rifle for an arm and a rocket launcher for a bat. I admire their skill. They practice year-round, four hours a day, with doubleheaders on weekends. The stadium wasn't fancy. The lawn was mowed by goats grazing in the outfield.
Our first American team went hitless in game one. Then my team got off to a rough start, giving up ten runs in the first inning!
I watched from the bench. Then my coach pulled our starting pitcher and tapped my shoulder. I felt very tense taking the mound. I almost couldn't swallow. I pitched the rest of the game, giving up four runs in 6 2/3 innings.
Facing the Cuban pitcher was intense. He was scary. Hard to read and powerful. I expected the Cuban fans to give up on us. Instead, they gravitated to us even more. This was goodwill, not a tournament. The TV cameras never bothered me. I'm not shy, and KOMO Channel 4 sportscaster Eric Johnson was more like an older brother to us.
Some things felt uneasy, though. Half our team and the coaches are on another Sandy Koufax team back in Seattle, so I felt like an outsider. Outfielder Jess Breckenridge became my friend. Thanks, Jess!
On our day off, we visited the National Sports Academy. They said it was a school for top athletes, but it didn't seem like a school. I felt sympathy for the athletes' families. Their children are selected at a young age and must live at the academy. This was the only place where Cubans seemed well-fed. I got to meet several Olympic gold medalists.
I feel sorry for Havana's children. They have nothing, and I expected sadness, but they are very happy.
My favorite thing about the trip was kicking back with a hundred Cuban kids, watching some good baseball! My least favorite thing about the trip was saying goodbye to them.
By far, my most treasured memory of Cuba is the people. They were the most compassionate and gentle people I've ever met. I'll never, ever forget them.