At one of the many dinners for Luis Duno-Gottberg, Associate Professor of Caribbean and Film Studies at Rice, the conversation between him and his company turned to his years of experience taking students on trips to Cuba. From there, the idea to send the Rice baseball team to Cuba was born. Now, thanks in large part to Duno-Gottberg, the Owls will travel to Cuba from November 23rd to December 4th to play exhibition games and learn about Cuban culture.
According to Duno-Gottberg, he never imagined that the trip would become reality.
“I didn’t think much, it was a conversation that seemed unexciting,” Duno-Gottberg said. “But the athletics department immediately started working and that took about a year. They discussed the possibilities, the benefits, and they eventually contacted me.
According to Deputy Athletic Director Rick Mello, planning the trip was a long process for the athletic department. Mello, Head Coach Wayne Graham and the rest of the stakeholders at Rice and in Cuba looked into the possibility in depth. They knew that the Penn State University baseball team had made a similar trip to Cuba in 2015, so they looked into and acquired the necessary approval from the NCAA. Mello said that the planning for this trip began even before the United States normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba in July 2015.
In a press release, University President David Leebron said this trip could be the first step in a future working relationship between Rice and Cuba.
"Our student-athletes are in many ways ambassadors of the university, and I am pleased that Rice will begin its direct relationship with Cuba in this way now that diplomatic relations have been restored," Leebron said.
After the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations, the Tampa Bay Rays played a game against the Cuban National team. With President Barack Obama in attendance, the Rays defeated Cuba 4-1. Not all of the reaction to the reopening of relations, the game and Obama’s visit was positive. Some people, particularly the Cuban exile community, objected strongly to what they claimed was a show of support for a government with a long history of human rights violations and oppression.
According to Duno-Gottberg, the pain of the exile community is understandable. However, he said that the Rice baseball team’s trip should be seen as an opportunity to learn about the complicated political situation.
“One can understand why [many Cuban-Americans] are very opposed to any contact with the island,” Duno-Gottberg said. “The things that they went through are difficult. But again, this younger generation [of Cuban-Americans] may understand that conversing with someone you don’t agree with doesn’t entail approving but entails sitting at the table to bring about change.”
Evan Kravetz, a sophomore pitcher from Miami, is one of the players who has heard backlash against Americans visiting Cuba.
Kravetz said he is very excited for the trip and looks forward to the experience; however, he understands the negative sentiments.
“So many people view this as a rare opportunity to explore a culture totally different from ours here in the United States,” Kravetz said. “I can't speak for those against the trip. I have not shared the hardships and devastation that many Cuban American families in the last century have faced. I see this as an amazing opportunity to connect with people that live in a culture different from ours.”
Throughout the semester, the baseball team will talk about these topics and more as they take two three-credit hour classes led by Duno-Gottberg. The first class, titled “Trends in Cuban Culture,” will focus on the politics and history of Cuba. The second class, “Cuban Baseball,” will focus on the history of baseball in Cuba and its role in the social and political history of the country.
While in Cuba, the team will continue attending class sessions with Duno-Gottberg and will play games against teams from the Cuban Baseball Federation.
According to Duno-Gottberg, each student-athlete will be keeping a diary and will participate in activities that will further teach them about Cuba through personal interactions.
“They will have activities in the island in which they will interact with the players and they will conduct short interviews and try to understand how the players see the game,” Duno-Gottberg said. “They will also do baseball clinics with children. So it has the historical element and also an ethnographic element in which students will interact and use the knowledge they’ve acquired in both classes to interact with the people of Cuba.”
Because student-athletes often do not have the opportunity to study abroad due to their commitments, this trip provides a chance for the baseball team to experience a foreign culture. Other Rice teams have made international trips; most recently, the men’s basketball team did a tour of Canada in the summer of 2013.
Kravetz said this experience will be a worthwhile one for the team both academically and athletically.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing the intricacies of Cuban life in the 21st century,” Kravetz said. “It is certainly going to be eye opening for a lot of the guys on our team”