They travelled all the way from Prince George to Cuba, with baseball the focus.
The ultimate goal of the World Baseball Challenge (WBC) committee, of course, is to see the Caribbean nation compete in the 2011 World Baseball Challenge.
You can’t put a stamp on it yet, but tournament organizers are optimistic the Cuban Baseball Federation will send a team next summer. WBC co-chair Shawn Rice, part of a small Prince George group who made the trip, said he’s hoping to get Cuba’s full commitment within the next couple of weeks.
“We sort of got a verbal, but there’s a big process that it has to go through prior to it being approved and we’re hoping to hear real soon on that,” Rice said. “The comments we got back from them is, we will send a team to win’. It’s not like they’ll just send any team.”
Rice saw the popularity of the sport in Cuba first hand. He said they’re even more passionate about baseball than Canadians are about hockey. And he knows the country’s participation in 2011 would raise the tournament’s profile.
“If Cuba shows up, than we will have one of the better tournaments that Prince George will ever see, or Canada for that matter,” he said. “There’s Cuba, there’s Japan, there’s Taiwan, there’s China. The list goes on and on and on.”
Joining Rice on the trip were co-chair Jim Swanson, international protocols and tourism director Virginia Sprangers and transportation director Paul Clermont. Clermont led a campaign to gather baseball gloves, helmets, bats, new baseballs and other equipment. The gear and baseball cards were presented to the baseball community and children in Cuba.
Rice said it was like Christmas when they were passing out the cards.
“We had a couple of kids that we gave a glove to, and their glove was either just so ragged, or one kid didn’t even have one and he’s on one of their national teams, 11-year-old kid,” he said. “The look in their eyes when you pass them that glove.
“We had a game there, like youth baseball here, that they were playing. And the ball would be black and torn and we threw a ball to the umpire and all of a sudden the fans, their parents were all cheering because they got this nice white ball to play with. Things like that, it was very enlightening and humbling.”
Three big sports bags and a box of equipment were presented to an 11-team youth baseball league in Havana, Rice noted. They also attended a Cuban professional baseball game which lasted 11 innings. Rice said they sat with politicians, musicians and sports legends.
The group left Prince George on Nov. 23 and after a couple of nights in Toronto, where they met with Major League Baseball team and WBC sponsor Toronto Blue Jays, they took off to Cuba. Their return flight to Vancouver was on Nov. 29.
The winner of the 2009 WBC, the USA National Team, has committed to returning next year. The runner-up Germany team has also expressed an interest in returning, but they’re still working out their operating budget for 2011.
Other squads that will be back next summer are the host Prince George Axemen and Team Canada.
“Germany, when they were here in 2009, that was the first time they ever beat Canada, and the first time they ever beat United States so for them, they want to be back for this tournament,” Rice said.
The 2011 WBC is scheduled for July 8 to 19 at Citizen Field.