Fort Myers (Fla.) youth baseball team heads to Cuba to compete

Fort Myers (Fla.) youth baseball team heads to Cuba to compete

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Fort Myers (Fla.) youth baseball team heads to Cuba to compete

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Teammates Daniel Valdes and Chrisitan Odio workout during a Fort Myers Baseball Academy team practice Tuesday evening in Fort Myers. (Photo: Ricardo Rolon / The News-Press, Ricardo Rolon / The News-Press)

Teammates Daniel Valdes and Chrisitan Odio workout during a Fort Myers Baseball Academy team practice Tuesday evening in Fort Myers.
(Photo: Ricardo Rolon / The News-Press, Ricardo Rolon / The News-Press)

Cape Coral truck driver Paulino Odio sold his 1949 Chrysler in 2001 for $1,000, money he desperately needed to leave his native Cuba.

Fifteen years later, Odio’s son, Christian, 14, will see his father’s homeland for the first time.

As part of the Fort Myers Baseball Academy Giants, ages 13-14, Christian and his teammates will become the first youth baseball team from Southwest Florida to compete in Cuba.

The Giants also will become the first team from the United States to play in the beach city Varadero of the Matanzas province, about a two-hour drive east of Havana. The 15 players, three coaches and about a dozen family members will depart from Miami on July 13 for a five-game series against Cuban teams over three days, July 14-16. They will have July 17 for cultural tours before returning home July 18.

Four of the Giants players are Cuban Americans and will be able to meet grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins for the first time.

All of the Giants call Southwest Florida home, with players from Cape Coral, Fort Myers, LaBelle and Naples.

“These are his roots,” Paulino Odio said through a Spanish translator. “He’ll get to see what his country is like. I want my son to see what it feels like to play sports in Cuba. I want my son to see a humble country that loves the sport.

“They have a little bit of water and sugar, and they’re still hitting the ball hard. I want my son to see what that’s like.”

Paulino Odio, 51, first relocated to Buffalo, New York, before moving to Cape Coral in 2005. Although Christian Odio will get to meet some of his aunts and uncles, his father isn’t sure if he can secure the money and paperwork to go.

This trip continues a new trend of U.S. youth baseball teams traveling to Cuba. Teams from Vermont and California already have journeyed to the island nation, 90 miles south of Key West, this year.

The United States cut diplomatic ties with Cuba, a communist country, in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro took control. In July 2015, the United States reopened its embassy in Havana and has been working to improve diplomatic relations.

“I had never had the chance to travel to Cuba,” said Carlos Perea, the Giants coach and a native of Puerto Rico who played minor-league baseball for the Kansas City Royals. “This inspired me to do it. I know the experience that these kids will have will be unbelievable.

“There’s a lot of Cuban players coming over here. The kids are becoming fans of these players. I really wanted to see what these kids are going through to get to where they are. This is something that I wanted them to see. We have it all here. We wanted to help other kids out.”

There have been 194 Cuban-born players who have played Major League Baseball, including 17 current big leaguers.

The Giants have set up a GoFundMe.com account, Baseball Trip to Cuba. They are hoping to raise $20,000 to cover the cost of about $1,000 per player. The Giants also will be donating equipment to the Cuban youth teams.

“Gloves, bats, shoes, everything that we can bring, we will donate,” Perea said.

“I’m excited,” said Dillon White, 14 and a catcher from LaBelle. His little brother, 7-year-old Ryer White, will be traveling as the team’s batboy. “I want to explore the world. I’m one step further to going around the world. It’s hard to believe that I’m going. It’s just exciting.”

Last year, the Giants visited the Dominican Republic. Perea said the players gained so much from that experience, he wanted to travel with them to another country. To plan, he visited Cuba in late March, the same week the Tampa Bay Rays played the Cuban national team in Havana with President Obama in attendance.

Cape Coral resident Aurelio Barcena, 44 and a native of Cuba, will make the trip, just the second to his homeland since he defected in 1995. His son, Daniel Barcena, plays for the Giants and has yet to meet his grandfather.

“My father coached minor-league baseball over there for 30 years,” Aurelia Barcena said of Hermes Barcena, now 80 and working behind the scenes in Cuba to help make the upcoming trip a success. “I wanted him to watch my son play baseball.”

Paulino Odio recalled his youth baseball experiences in Cuba.

“It’s not like over here, where you have a place like this,” Odio said of Extra Innings, an indoor batting cage the Giants use once a week in Gateway. “Over there, you might have to mow the lawn, and there might be a cow on the field. And when the ball unravels, they keep playing with it.”

Assistant coach Tim Van Meter, 41, and his son, outfielder/pitcher Alex, 14, are looking forward to learning as much as playing baseball.

“I would never have thought about going to Cuba,” said Van Meter, a Fort Myers resident. “It will be pretty cool to experience a different culture. The kids in Cuba, they live baseball. They love baseball. That’s their life.”

How to help

The Fort Myers Baseball Academy Giants are hoping to raise $20,000 to help fund their groundbreaking, July trip to play in Cuba.

They have set up page, Baseball Trip to Cuba, at GoFundMe.org.

The link: www.gofundme.com/prvaf4tw

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