Howard high schoolers go to bat for Cuban baseball

Howard high schoolers go to bat for Cuban baseball

Sitting in the dugout last summer at a baseball game, John Roschella's mind started to wander. As coach of a youth boys travel team in Howard County, he had taken his team to play in a variety of places from Virginia to Ohio to Cooperstown, N.Y.

On that summer day, he set his mind in a whole new direction.

"I wanted something a little different for this group," Roschella said of his team of 15- to 16-year-old boys. "I had kicked it around internally, but had never verbalized it. I turned to my assistant coach and said, 'Do you want to go Cuba next year?' "

After months of planning and organizing, that destination will soon be a reality as Roschella and 10 players from Howard County, along with one from Catonsville, will travel to Cuba on Feb. 17 for a Baseball Good Will Tour.

"I feel it is real now," Roschella said. "I have travel documents. The uniforms have showed up. We have been working so long ... it's pretty exciting."

Working with Caribbean Baseball Goodwill tours, a Canadian-based organization, a team of parents was able to arrange a trip to Cuba that included not only playing baseball but also visiting Cuban families to learn the country's culture.

"We are going for the entire experience," said Jennifer Cavey, a volunteer mom who will be traveling with her son Ryan, 15. "Baseball is the common link."

While the majority of the traveling team's players hail from Maryland, players from Canada and North Carolina fill out the line-up for a complete team that will not have one practice together before its first game in Cuba.

"I'm not going there to win and I'm not going there to lose either," Roschella said. "Most of them are high-quality baseball players. They understand what they are supposed to do."

The team's roster includes players from Howard, Centennial, Glenelg and Marriottsville high schools. While he has not coached all of the Howard County players, Roschella says he is familiar with most of them.

"The local kids, either I've coached them ... or watched them," Roschella said. "I try to get to see them all play."

Kyle Ryan, of Catonsville, is one of the players Roschella invited to play after seeing him pitch against his team last year.

"I had pitched against them pretty well and the coach called," Ryan, 16, said. "I really wanted to do it."

While the junior from Catonsville High will not be playing with any of his teammates, he is familiar with many of the players on the team going to Cuba.

"I know some of them pretty well," Ryan said. "We play in the same [travel] league. I've played against them forever."

The team will play four games while in Cuba. The players will also get a chance to train with coaches from Cuba.

"It is a great opportunity to expand my knowledge of baseball and learn more about the game," said Jake Ewart, 16, a sophomore player from Centennial High School. "Going to Cuba is going to be a good time."

"They could help us improve as players all around," said Ryan Conway, 15, a sophomore at Centennial.

A beloved sport in Cuba, baseball games are typically well attended and highly skilled, according to Cavey.

"Baseball games are big events," Cavey said. "Their games mean the world to the Cuban players."

"I expect the Cubans to be a very good baseball team," Roschella said.

Playing conditions, however, from the fields to the equipment, may not be in the same caliber as the boys' teams at home, Cavey said. All of the participating youth were asked to do fundraising to collect baseball equipment and school supplies to donate to the Cuban teams.

"People were more than generous," Roschella said. "We're taking 600 pounds of gear."

Some of that gear includes baseballs with personalized messages.

"Families and friends wrote messages," Cavey said. "For a donation of $10, you could sponsor a ball."

All of the equipment will be donated throughout the week, as the team travels to different villages. One day, the team is scheduled to visit a local school to deliver the school supplies.

"Baseball is the secondary part," Roschella said. "We are glad to give the kids the experience to do this, to meet the people. There will be plenty of opportunities for players to interact together. I think if you take a look at it, the most important thing to come out of this is the interaction with each other, the Americans and the Cubans."

The team will travel by bus to Toronto on Feb. 18 to catch a flight to Cuba. They will return on Feb. 25. All travel plans, including airfare, hotel stays, food, transportation and the team's itinerary while in Cuba, were handled by Caribbean Baseball Goodwill.

"The kids are so excited," Cavey said. "They have no idea what they are in for. They don't know how privileged they are to play baseball where they do. They will have a greater appreciation once they get back."

"It's pretty exciting this is happening," Roschella said. "It is a great opportunity."

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