Béisbol De Baylor En Cuba

March 23, 2010

Head coach Steve Smith's squad shares sports and scriptures in weeklong visit to Cuba.


When the players on the Baylor baseball team found out they would be going to Havana, Cuba, they didn't know what to expect. The world's largest Baptist university and the only Communist country in the western hemisphere aren't exactly a match made in Heaven (or Havana).

"I've been asked, 'Why Cuba?'" head baseball coach Steve Smith, BSED '86, said. "In hindsight, the answer is really two things. One is the common love of baseball that we have, and the other is simply because God was already working there. Now, having been down there and having observed and participated in what we did, I think we were simply blessed to have been able to be involved in what God was already doing."

Still, preparing for the trip wasn't easy. After filling out stacks of paperwork and making sure everyone in the travel party had a valid passport, the team didn't get final approval for the trip until Jan. 13. The team had already been granted a religious visa by the Cuban government, but the United States Department of Treasury and Department of State had to grant a humanitarian license allowing the team to enter Cuba.

Fortunately, everything came together, and a group of about 50 Bears left Waco at 2 a.m. on Jan. 20. Twelve hours later, the traveling party--including 33 student-athletes, the Baylor coaching staff, business professor Dr. L.M. Dyson, BBA '71, MS '72 (whose previous travels to Cuba helped with this trip's arrangements), athletic chaplain Wes Yeary, BSED '87, and former university chaplain Dr. Milton Cunningham, BA '50--landed in Havana, where the team was greeted by its host party, the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba. The following morning, the group was driven to a local baseball stadium, where it would interact with students from the University of Havana in the first of many opportunities to share words about the Christian faith.

The Cuban government wouldn't typically allow such a thing, but the government recognizes problems with the morals of its youth, so it is willing to accept religion, as long as it teaches strong moral values. It's not an ideal situation to do mission work, but that didn't stop student-athletes such as Gregg Glime and Shawn Tolleson from standing in front of large groups to give their personal testimonies.

Over four days, the Bears spent time in practice drills with local players, speaking to Cuban players one-on-one and in large groups. On Sunday, the team experienced worship in a local church, then took in a Cuban professional baseball game--in other words, a normal spring day for many Baylor baseball fans, albeit in Cuba. After the game, they got to meet with some of the players from the Industriales, including the team's hitting instructor, Omar Linares. (The Industriales are Cuba's version of the New York Yankees, and Linares is their Babe Ruth.) 

The final two days of the trip saw Baylor players renovating the baseball field and basketball court at a neighborhood sports complex. It was a true team effort, as various groups took on projects such as building a new pitcher's mound, replacing the dirt surrounding home plate and installing a pair of new basketball goals.

It wasn't long before the Baylor contingent got to see the fruits of its labor. The local people organized a game for their children on their new baseball field, and after that game ended, the Baylor players split into teams with Cuban players for a few more innings of practice. 

The Baylor players left for Cuba unsure of what to expect but realized while there that they share many things in common with the Cuban people, and returned home feeling even closer to those people because of the words of faith they were able to share during the six-day trip.

"I was hopeful that we would go down there and make a tangible difference with the work we were going to do," Smith said. "I was hoping that through the interaction with their people and seeing another country, that somehow or another our lives and our perspectives would be affected. Whatever my expectations were, they were exceeded on every front."

[Student Perspective]

I can speak for all the guys on the team; our bags were much lighter on the way home. We gave away just about everything we came with, but that doesn't mean we arrived home empty-handed. I came home with something worth much more than a pair of shoes--a completely refashioned frame of mind. 

Unashamed. The Christians of Cuba, a communist and atheist nation, were unashamed of their beliefs. Untainted joy poured out of each one them. Jesus Christ died for me so that I can live eternally in heaven; what could possibly cause me sorrow? What an encouragement! Their hope resides in their faith. Their faith is all they have, and when you think about it, our faith is all that any of us have. What a slap in the face! How foolish of me to place hope in the things of this world. 

Were we able to help the people of Cuba? Absolutely. Besides the physical work that we provided for the Cubans, I believe it was encouraging to the Cuban Christians to fellowship with other Christians of the world. Were we able to further the Kingdom? No doubt about it. The opportunity to share my testimony to Cuban high school baseball players is an experience I will remember for the rest of my life. This was the first time that many of the kids had ever heard of the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. My life has been forever changed by my experiences in Cuba, and I pray every night that Cuba has been forever changed by God's work through us. -Shawn Tolleson, junior pitcher

My fondest memory from our trip to Cuba was the second night we were there. We went as a team to a "Texas style" barbecue with some brisket and sausage that we brought with us and shared fellowship with about 200 Cubans. There was a band that played all sorts of Christian songs, all in Spanish. Usually, we were able to pick up on the chorus of the songs and start to sing along. It was such a powerful experience as we sang alongside the Cuban people at the top of our lungs, not even really sure what we were saying, but certain that we were praising the Lord. Then the band played a song that we all recognized. It was the Spanish version of "How Great is Our God." We sang aloud in English as the Cubans sang in Spanish. Wow, what a profound moment that was. As Wes Yeary later said, it could not have been a more appropriate song for us to be able to sing. When you consider all of the hoops we had to jump through to get our team down there in the first place and then all of the lives that we were able to touch, not to mention how many of our own lives were forever changed, there really is no more appropriate way to explain how it all came together than "How Great is Our God." -Willie Kempf, senior pitcher

When I first heard of the Cuba trip, I had mixed emotions. The thought of traveling to a place so few people can say they have visited intrigued me, as I love to travel wherever possible. On the other hand, the thought of going into a communist country where so many things could go wrong put bad thoughts in my head. I found a quote from Jeremiah 29:11-13 on a refrigerator magnet my grandmother had sent me last year that I looked at every time I had those doubts. "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future...You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart."

When we arrived in Cuba and began to interact with the people there I knew exactly what this verse was talking about. The people there were as good a people as any I have come into contact with. We were able to worship with them even though most of their worship was in Spanish. We could still feel God's presence constantly with us. 

Coach Smith had said that no matter where you were in your walk with Christ when you left for this trip, your life would be changed forever when you returned. For me personally, and I would imagine for others on the trip, it strengthened my relationship with Christ more than I could've even imagined. I thank mis hermanos de Cuba for everything they helped me gain. -Josh Ludy, sophomore catcher