August 10, 2008 / 9:51 PM / 11 years ago

U.S. Little Leaguers visiting Cuba in rare trip

PENALVER, Cuba (Reuters) - Young baseball players from the United States and Cuba squared off on Sunday in a game that was the first of its kind in eight years and far friendlier than relations between their two countries.

Players of the Twin State Peregrines of Vermont and New Hampshire listen to the Cuban national anthem at a field at a convent in Penalver on the outskirts of Havana August 10, 2008. REUTERS/Claudia Daut

On a rustic, palm-fringed baseball diamond at a convent east of communist Cuba’s capital, Havana, the Santos of Cuba clubbed three home runs in the first two innings and went on to defeat the Twin State Peregrines, 16-5.

But both sides said it did not matter who won, only that boys from different worlds shared a few hours playing a game they loved, and maybe in the process made things a little better.

The Peregrines, who come from Vermont and New Hampshire, were the first U.S. Little Leaguers known to visit Cuba since the Lost Coast Pirates from northern California in 2000.

The Peregrines won a second game against a different team, the Mangos, 19-8.

Peregrines’ coach Ted Levin said getting permission from the United States for the nine-day trip was not easy.

“It was two years in the making, four tries with the U.S. government and it was a moving target with the Cuban government,” he said.

It was finally arranged after intervention from members of the U.S. Congress, he said.

Sporting events between the United States and Cuba were more common before President George W. Bush took office and toughened the long-standing U.S. trade embargo to make it hard for Americans to visit the island 90 miles south of Florida

FRIENDLY GAME

Levin said the visit had “a non-political agenda.”

“We love baseball, they love baseball and what better way to share some time and realize how similar we are,” he said.

Santos coach Rey Arcel agreed.

“This isn’t politics. That’s a problem of the state,” he said. This, he said, was “friendship among brothers.”

Santos shortstop Yoni Garcia, 15, got his team started with a first-inning home run into a mango tree beyond the left field fence. He raised his arms in triumph as soon as he hit it, then trotted around the bases to applause from a small group of spectators.

“It doesn’t matter who wins,” he said. Playing the American team of 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds was a good way “to be friends,” he said.

The Peregrines’ Joe Crevara, 13, said the team came to Cuba, “just to have fun. We’re not here to win.”

“If they hear about us maybe other teams will want to do this or maybe even get a Cuba team” to the United States to play, he said.

Cuban players often defect to play baseball in the United States, with pitchers Livan Hernandez and Orlando ‘El Duque’ Hernandez and others having made it to the Major Leagues.

Slideshow (10 Images)

The Peregrines were to play other Cuban teams this week.

Florida rancher John Parke Wright, long active in trying to improve U.S.-Cuba relations and who helped organize the trip, said the baseball game put on vivid display the strong ties between Americans and Cubans.

“This is about kids and baseball and lovely friends,” he said. “Both governments should be ashamed.”

Editing by Philip Barbara

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