Union de Reyes coach Jorge Olivera is animated during a fun game combining baseball and tennis at the Crofton ball fields. (Don Bodger/Black Press)

Union de Reyes coach Jorge Olivera is animated during a fun game combining baseball and tennis at the Crofton ball fields. (Don Bodger/Black Press)

Cuban team has a ball during Chemainus visit

Community bids farewell with fun games and banquet

A fun-filled Friday at the Crofton Ball Park provided a fond farewell and a fitting finale to the one-week tour of the Cuban baseball group from Union De Reyes.

Regular baseballs were replaced by tennis balls and bats with racquets, as players, coaches and billet family members enjoyed an invented game that combined the two sports. There were smiles all-around, some of which turned to sadness later after a banquet at the Crofton Community Centre that marked the end of seven hectic days of baseball and social activities.

It was also the 66th birthday of Chemainus and District Baseball Association vice president Rick Shay, one of the event organizers, that made the day a little extra special.

“In one word, I would say ‘incredible,’” said Shay in summing up the tour. “Everything went without a hitch. They were so happy.”

Rob Dyke almost inadvertently created the template for what was to follow after he and wife Tracey took donated baseball gear to Cuba 10 long years ago. It all led to this unique experience for the Cubans and the Dykes are thrilled how the friendships between the Chemainus and Cuban baseball groups have evolved over the years.

Surveying the scene on the field gave Rob Dyke great satisfaction.

“It describes the whole week, family and friendship throughout,” he said.

“They bonded, I bet, more than triplefold since they’ve been here,” added Shay.

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The energy of the Cuban group, despite a very busy week, was epitomized by Jorge Olivera, one of their coaches. He was a boundless bundle of energy on the field, seeming more like a 32-year-old than 52.

Our great volunteer interpreter Patricia Guzman of Crofton relayed questions to some of the Cubans for their insight.

Jose Alexander Santos indicated he was very happy to be here and thrilled with so many people. “The people are beautiful,” he confided.

Santos was also impressed that the Cuban community in Victoria came out when they heard the group was there.

“He’s just loved the towns,” added Guzman of Santos’s sentiments.

“He’s loved being here – the scenery has been absolutely amazing,” she noted of player Jiovanny Estevez Sanchez.

“The memories that stand out – the Terry Fox monument was fantastic.”

They got to see the monument while in Victoria. They were so enthralled because the Cubans have an annual Terry Fox Run.

“Players with the Chemainus Baseball Association were wonderful,” Estevez continued. “We look forward to the possibility of a return trip.”

“Everyone has been so good to them and they’re so grateful,” Guzman relayed of his message.

Of course, the chance to experience snow on Mount Washington during a day trip there was something the Cubans will never forget. Head coach Saul Basallo indicated they felt like they were the first Cubans at the top of the world at that time.

For coach Lazaro Apolinario, “it’s been an incredible opportunity,” he remarked.

“Never did they think they would come here – it seemed like a dream out of reach,” Guzman translated.

“We’ve been treated with such kindness. He’s moved beyond measure.

“The solidarity we feel in Cuba, we never thought we’d feel outside his own country.”

It was the first trip out of the country for the majority of them.

“It is the spirituality and growth that is what they’ve achieved the most,” pointed out Guzman of Apolinario’s assessement. “Hopefully, this experience will grow and venture out and return.”

There was a twist of irony to the final hours of the tour, with showers coming down after a mostly sunny week, that had Shay reflecting back on the Chemainus group’s journey to Cuba last year.

“It’s fitting our last day here playing ball, they had a picnic for us, and we were there mingling and it started to rain.”

Shay said people in the communities of Chemainus and Crofton have embraced the tour to an unbelievable extent.

“The generosity from the community while they were here was unreal,” he praised.

The Crofton Shop ‘N’ Wash, a combined thrift store and laundromat, allowed the Cubans to shop there for free. The Warmland Church hosted a pancake breakfast, winners of 50-50 draws donated money back and the list of those contributing to the cause goes on and on.

Business was booming at the Chemainus Ball Park concession and Jill LeBlanc did a wonderful job of leading the volunteers to keep up with the orders.

“I want to thank the umpires, too, for a great job and the teams that played the Cubans – great sportsmanship by all the teams,” added Shay.

And now life returns to normal, whatever that means, for everyone involved.