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Story by Doug Hennes and Jim Winterer

HAVANA – Less than a minute after its 6 a.m. liftoff Saturday, the Boeing 727 carrying the University of St. Thomas baseball team slipped into a cloud bank. There wasn’t much to see for the next four hours.

The first break in the clouds offered a quick glimpse of Tampa, Fla. Minutes later, you could see peeks of the ocean where last November a mother lashed her 6-year-old son to an inner tube.

Finally, a couple of thousand miles from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, the clouds parted. Below was sparkling water and just miles ahead, sun bathed the north coast of Cuba.

Blue ocean and green trees — the first bit of culture shock for more than 75 Minnesotans who left behind a fresh snowfall and sub-zero temperatures.

Click. The Sun Country pilot flipped on the loudspeaker and announced, “We are now making our final descent into Havana.”

“Wow, it’s really happening,” was heard from one end of the plane to the other. After a full year of planning and countless phone calls, e-mails, letters and meetings, the Tommies indeed were landing in Cuba.

As the plane slowed over Cuban airspace, even the flight attendants were excited. “I’m so pumped, I can’t believe it,” one veteran attendant said. “And I only get to stay here for a few hours. You guys get to stay the whole week.”

She tried to swap some Sun Country blankets or pillows for one of the T-shirts made for the trip. There weren’t any takers. “I’m so proud of you guys,” she said as the pilot clicked on the loudspeaker again. “Go Tommies,” he cheered.

Things got interesting minutes after landing. As the team got up to leave, two players were missing their passports. They needed them to get on the plane in the Twin Cities, so they had to be somewhere. One turned up wedged in a seat cushion, and the other was in the bottom pocket of a pair of cargo pants.

The Tommies had landed. What follows are stories on just a few highlights of St. Thomas’ first two days in Havana.

The Rev. Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, had been looking forward especially to Sunday’s Mass at San Agustin Catholic Church because he thought it would present a marvelous opportunity for the St. Thomas delegation to share time and prayer with residents of Havana.

Dease concelebrated the 11 a.m. Mass with Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, pastor of San Agustin and the great-great grandson and namesake of a legendary Cuban patriot. It is rare for a white priest from the United States to concelebrate Mass here with a Cuban priest.

About 200 people attended the hour-long Mass, which was spoken in Spanish and featured lively singing from a group of about a dozen men and women. Background noise came from chirping birds perched on the sills of open windows.

“There was just a wonderful spirit in there,” Dease said. “It was a good example of the Cuban Christian spirit. They really put their hearts into the music. I have been in this business long enough to know when a parish is alive and when it is dead, and this one is very alive. It was quite a moving experience.”

Dease and de Cespedes walked the length of the church to open the Mass, and de Cespedes briefly explained why so many strange faces were present. “I wish you God’s blessing in your stay here,” he told the St. Thomas delegation.

Dease carried his Spanish hymnal and said a portion of the eucharistic prayer in Spanish. He got passing marks from de Cespedes.

“He speaks very good Spanish,” de Cespedes said, in English. “He pronounces things very well.”

Neither de Cespedes nor Dease made any references during the Mass to Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban boy who is the center of a custody dispute in Florida. After the “Our Father,” de Cespedes told the congregation, “Paz, hermano” (“Peace, brother”), and people exchanged handshakes and hugs.

“It was neat seeing how they worship,” said Paul Rafferty, a St. Thomas senior who speaks Spanish. “Mass is similar to how we worship, but the cultures are different and the place is different, and it didn’t bother anyone at all.”

This was the first time in Dease’s five trips to Cuba that he had concelebrated a Mass with a Cuban priest. He has found greater interest in the church since Pope John Paul II’s historic visit here two years ago “awakened the religious sense of the people here,” he said.

That the Mass was held in de Cespedes’ church is an interesting story in itself.

His great-great grandfather is widely known as the father of independence in Cuba, or the country’s Abraham Lincoln. A general, he freed his slaves in 1868, and many others followed his lead.

The Cuban priest also serves as vicar general of the Archdiocese of Havana, or the No. 2 person in the church’s hierarchy here. He studied for the priesthood in Havana and Rome, where he was ordained in 1961, and returned to Cuba in 1963. He has been at San Agustin for five years.

After two weeks of hitting and fielding balls in Coughlan Field House, the St. Thomas baseball team finally got outdoors on Sunday afternoon. The conditions — 75 degrees and overcast — were “just about perfect” in the words of several players.

“It felt good to stretch out, take infield and hit some balls on a real field,” said junior second baseman Jake Mauer. “You can’t ask for better weather to work out.”

The team’s first stop in the afternoon was a beach, where they joined University of Havana students and took a dip in the sea. The Tommies then boarded their bus and headed for practice at a stadium on the grounds of a Havana hospital.

Coach Dennis Denning
and his assistants ran the team through a series of hitting, fielding, throwing and running drills, “mostly to get the kinks out,” he said. Ninety minutes later, and with dusk settling in, Denning called the players together to review what he thought was “a good practice.”

“You can’t do everything at once,” he told them. “It takes time to get comfortable. Everything will start to fall in place. We have three more days of practice, and we’ll make progress every day.”

As the players left the field for the bus and the ride back to the Habana Libre hotel, Denning laughed when asked about a couple of players’ comments on how the infield was a little bumpy.

“Hey, a lot of MIAC (Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) fields are like this, too,” he said. “And this is better than our field right now, don’t you think?”

Among the observers in the stands was Raul Esteban Perez, coach of the Cuban team that the Tommies will play Wednesday afternoon. Perez has taught at the University of Havana for 30 years and has been its baseball coach for five years.

Perez said 16 of the 25 players on the Caribbean team are from the University of Havana, and the others are enrolled at three other universities in the city. His players “are worried,” he said through a translator, and with a smile, because they know St. Thomas was the NCAA Division III runnerup last year and shouldn’t be taken lightly even in this baseball-crazy country.

The Cuban team “is strong up the middle,” Perez said, gesturing with his hands and referring to his pitching, catching and defense at shortstop and second base.

After 45 minutes, he started to walk down to the field and was asked what he thought of the Tommies. He smiled again, flashed a thumbs-up sign, took an imaginary swing and said, “Power.”

While the team was at the beach and practice, two dozen faculty and staff members checked out some of Ernest Hemingway’s haunts.

The first stop was the El Floridita, a restaurant where Hemingway made famous “the Papa,” a drink made with a double shot of rum and grapefruit juice.

The St. Thomas delegation had lunch with Maximo Gomez, curator at the National Museum of Fine Arts and former director of the Hemingway Museum in Havana. Gomez and Dr. Nancy Zingale, executive assistant to the president, discussed the possibility of bringing a Cuban exhibit to St. Thomas.

The next stop was the Hemingway Museum, the novelist’s home from 1939 to 1960. They saw the room where Hemingway wrote from sunrise to noon, standing at a typewriter in his study.

Another stop was a bar in Pueblo de Cojimar, where scenes from “Old Man and the Sea” were shot. Hemingway’s Cuban years were his most prolific as a writer, and there is a monument in his honor in the town square.

The highlight of Saturday night’s festivities was a dinner and party at the Morro-Cabana Tourist Resort, which is in an old Spanish fortress on the Caribbean Sea.

The St. Thomas delegation arrived in time for the “cannon shot” ceremony at the fortress. Each evening at 9 o’clock, a cannon shot is fired as a reminder of a practice two centuries ago, when a wall ran through what now is known as Old Havana. The shot was a signal that the entrances to the city would be closed for the evening and it was time for residents to get inside.

A band played before the dinner and singers serenaded the St. Thomas delegation. Players got up to dance, and others joined them on the floor. The action revived the group, which had been up since 3 a.m. because of the early-morning flight out of the Twin Cities.

“It was tremendously uplifting,” said Ron Riley of Instructional Support Services, who along with Brad Jacobsen is shooting video during the trip. “Everybody was tired and hungry and just wanted to crash, and then the music picked us up. We didn’t want it to end.”

One U.S. congressman from Minnesota flew with the St. Thomas delegation to Havana and met with a Cuban trade official.

Rep. David Minge, a 2nd District Democrat who represents southwestern Minnesota, took advantage of a Sun Country offer to fly toCuba just for the day. The charter had a five-hour layover in Havana, and Minge returned to Minnesota in the evening.

Minge and Dease met with Maria de la Lux D’Hamel, dirctor of the North American Division for the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Trade. She would dearly love to see an end to the U.S. embargo so her country could establish trade relations with Minnesota and other agricultural states.

Minge shares her sentiments. He pointed out that Cuba imports $900 million in agricultural products each year, including corn, soybean products and powdered milk, all of which are produced in Minnesota and could be transported easily to Cuba. His congressional district, he said, has more soybean acreage than any other district in the United States.

“It’s not possible to apply logic to the embargo,” D’Hamel said. “Its impact is present in absolutely everything in our daily lives.”


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Equipo Caribe vs St. Thomas, Havana, Cuba 2000

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