The Cowichan Valley baseball community has a chance to help make history.
Following a massively successful visit to Cuba by the Chemainus Jays team last August, the Chemainus and District Baseball Association is hoping to host a team from the Caribbean island nation this coming summer.
Permission has already been granted by the Cuban government for the team to visit Canada — an unprecedented move for a non-competitive youth team.
“Usually they only let elite teams travel outside the country,” said Rick Shay, vice president of the Chemainus and District Baseball Association. “These kids will never, ever, ever get the opportunity to do this again in their lives.”
The impetus for the Chemainus-Cuba baseball exchange came from Chemainus resident Rob Dyke. Dyke has visited Cuba many times, and on a trip in the fall of 2015, he took two duffel bags full of baseball gear to donate to Cuban players. He passed the equipment on to Saúl Bassalo, a veteran player for Cuban club Matanzas who also coaches young players.
“I met up with him and he was thrilled to get the equipment,” Dyke recalled. “He showed me baseballs they were using with no leather covering.”
Bassalo invited Dyke to bring kids from Chemainus to Cuba to play, and the wheels started moving. Largely through the efforts of the Jays players themselves, $24,000 was raised to get 14 kids, all under the age of 20, to Cuba, where they played against Bassalo’s team and took 10 bags of new and used equipment.
The Chemainus players were in Cuba for the 90th birthday of late dictator Fidel Castro, when they played on the Matanzas field, which locals claim is the oldest baseball diamond in the world, dating back to 1874. They were the 138th international team to play in the field. In contrast to that, they became the very first squad from outside Cuba to play in the small town of Unión de Reyes, packing the stadium as fans journeyed from other nearby communities to see the Canadians play.
Beyond just baseball, the trip had a humanitarian component, which Shay called “life-changing.” The players and their families got to see the immediate impact of their generosity.
“The humanitarian part was much bigger than we imagined,” Shay said. “In the last game, [the Chemainus players] were playing in their sock feet; they gave away their shoes.”
On the Chemainus players’ last day in Cuba, the Cuban players walked four and a half hours to the resort in order to say goodbye and express their gratitude.
Now, the goal is to bring the Cuban players to Canada for 10 days, including four or five games against local teams. It would be a dream come true for the young Cubans.
“Not one of them has ever left Cuba before,” Shay said.
It will cost the association about $40,000 to bring the Cuban players to Canada, and organizers are hoping that corporate sponsors will step up to help offset the cost.
“This permission granted [by the Cuban government] does not come with any financial assistance, so to be able to continue to gift the Matanzas ball team with this wonderful dream, we are fundraising,” Shay explained.
Anyone interested in helping sponsor the Cuban visit should contact Shay at 250-709-7524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Cheques can be made payable to the Chemainus and District Baseball Association.