First Pitch

In November 2015, the Penn State baseball team became the first United States team—amateur or professional—to compete against teams from the Cuban National Series.

Traveling to Cuba to face some of the proud baseball nation’s top professional clubs was bound to have a positive effect on the Penn State baseball team’s on-field performance. 

Penn State baseball in Cuba

Penn State Baseball in Cuba

The Penn State baseball team participated in a pregame flag ceremony with Cuba's Industriales before the teams first game of a four game tour in Havana, Cuba on Monday, Nov. 23.  The Nittany Lions will compete against teams from Cuba's National League during their tour of the country.

Image: Kelsie Netzer

But it wasn’t the on-field gains that had the greatest impact on the student-athletes. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity provided unique access to the Cuban culture—an experience that helped them all grow as people, not just players.

“There was an impact that our guys felt from the people of Cuba and from seeing the things that they saw,” says head coach Rob Cooper. 

“Some of these guys might go into international business someday. Some of these guys might go into politics someday and sit across from somebody, and all these experiences can really help them down the road.”

To the players, the Cuban culture offered so much more than baseball—but one of the most significant ways they learned about that culture was through the experience of playing the game.

“Baseball is a way for so many of [the Cuban] players to express themselves as individuals,” says Cooper. “It’s a celebration for them a lot of the time.” 

And, say the players, the fans were an incredible part of the entire experience, with loud horns and chants in the stands, and a lot of positive energy.

“Seeing the look on a kid’s face when you give him a ball, a T-shirt, a hat, or even a pair of spikes was probably the best experience,” says pitcher Tim Scholly. 

Of course, walking through Old Havana had its perks as well, between its beauty and the interactions with all of the locals.

“All of us going through there and seeing everything Cuba had to offer, while we’re all trying to figure out what [they’re] trying to say to us and they’re trying to figure out what we’re saying to them, definitely brought us all closer together,” says Junior Nick Riotto.

Cooper put it all into perspective when reflecting on the nation: “At the end of the day, they’re people who love baseball,” he says. “They’re very proud of who they are, and their nation, and their way of life.”

"Sports is a great window on culture."—John Affleck

In addition to the four baseball games against teams from the Cuban National Series, Penn State student-athletes took part in multiple lectures and cultural experiences arranged by Penn State’s partner institution in Cuba, the Center for Marti Studies in Havana—including a lesson on the history of sport in Cuba with special guest Yosvany Aragón, a former star on the Cuban national baseball team.

“At this pivotal moment in U.S.-Cuba relations, our Penn State student-athletes [had] the rare opportunity—through competition, player-to-player engagement, and educational programming—to experience first-hand the Cuban people’s passion for their national sport and learn about the history and culture of the country that produced some of the best baseball players in the world,” says Cooper.

Beyond Athletics

The trip also afforded educational opportunities beyond the student-athletes on the team. Eight undergraduate students form the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State covered the trip to provide content for media outlets across the state, as part of a partnership with the Pennsylvania News Media Association. 

“The trip to Havana could not come at a more important moment for U.S.-Cuba relations and we are excited … to tell the story for everyone back in Pennsylvania,” says John Affleck, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society and director of the Curley Center. 

“Sports is a great window on culture,” he continues, and students will aim to give readers and viewers a better understanding of the Cuban people and culture through that lens.

“We want students to get experiences here that are not possible anywhere else,” says Affleck. “And we are lucky enough to have quality students who can undertake such endeavors, grow personally and, at the same time, help news organizations by providing meaningful content.” 

“At this pivotal moment in U.S.-Cuba relations, our Penn State student-athletes [had] the rare opportunity to experience first-hand the Cuban people’s passion for their national sport and learn about the history and culture of the country that produced some of the best baseball players in the world.”—Rob Cooper

Mike Gilbert is a GoPSUsports.com student staff writer; other content contributors include Tony Mancuso and Steve Sampsell. Featured photo was taken by Communications student Cameron Hart.