Niyo: Grosse Pointe baseball team will go on Cuban excursion

John Niyo, The Detroit News

Brian Kruger had an idea he wanted to run by his travel baseball team this spring. And he knew it might sound like it came out of left field.

“I said, ‘Look, guys, a lot of teams are going to tournaments in Canton,’ ” Kruger said. “I thought it’d be cool if we went to one in Cuba.”

But he also had a pretty good idea his kids could hit a curveball. And sure enough, they could, which is the short version of how this all came to pass, the Grosse Pointe Avengers heading to Havana later this summer for the trip of a lifetime — the first youth team from Michigan to play there since the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

The longer story goes back a bit further, of course. Kruger, who has coached youth baseball in southeastern Michigan for more than 25 years, has been mulling this idea for the better part of a decade. But it didn’t become a realistic one until a couple of years ago when President Obama restored diplomatic ties with Cuba, lifting many of the travel restrictions for U.S. citizens in the process.

The economic embargo which began in 1962 remains in place for now, but last summer the first direct commercial flight from the U.S. reached Cuba. And while driving in his car on a cold January day in Michigan, the notion grabbed Kruger again as he listened to a story about Cuba and tourism on National Public Radio. Kruger, whose day job is an executive producer for Stunt3 Multimedia, decided the time was right. Youth teams from California, Florida and Vermont made the trip last year, so why not us?

Cultural exchange

He reached out to government officials for assistance but didn’t get very far. Eventually, he got in touch with Michael Eizenberg, the president of Educational Travel Alliance, a Miami-based group licensed by the U.S. Treasury to make travel arrangements in Cuba. Visas, transportation, a translator, and so on.

“Tourist” travel is still prohibited for U.S. citizens, so trips must fall into in an authorized category.

But in the Avengers’ case, selling this six-day trip in early August as a cultural exchange isn’t a stretch at all.

“I don’t want to just go down there and play baseball,” Kruger said.

That’s a big part of it, sure. The Avengers, a 16-under team that plays in the Macomb Area Baseball Federation, will play a full slate of games against Cuban teams in their age group while they’re in Havana. And while several of his players were part of the Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores team that made it to the Little League World Series in 2013, Kruger is well aware the games might be a bit of a mismatch.

But the larger plan includes playing a mixed-squad game or two with the Cubans, as well as the Grosse Pointe families taking the Cuban players and their parents out to dinner each night. The Avengers also are planning to donate all their baseball equipment — along with equipment they’ll spend the next few months collecting here at home — to their hosts.

While in Havana, they’ll take part in cultural events and sightseeing, from Old Havana to Ernest Hemingway’s home, as well as some government-regulated visits.

The trip isn’t cheap — it’ll cost about $3,000 per person for a traveling party of about 40 adults and kids — “and I explained to them it’s not gonna be like going to Disney,” Kruger said.

But it’s a small world, after all, right?

More than a game

And for Kruger, baseball has been a passion since his childhood days playing Little League growing up in Ypsilanti. Among the documentaries he and Stunt3 cohort Buddy Moorehouse have made over the last decade are films about Carolyn King, the Ypsilanti girl who broke gender barriers as a Little Leaguer in 1973, and Art “Pinky” Deras, who gained national fame leading a Hamtramck team to the Little League World Series title in ’59. So when Kruger says, “baseball is love,” he really does mean it.

“But down there in Cuba, it’s in their soul,” he said. “Here it’s something that you play because the adults told you to get together and you have practice. So I want to see our guys experience it on a visceral level.

“And then on a political level, I think it’s really cool to be part of the warming of relationships. That’ll be great for those kids to take that into their college years.”

Kruger, a former high school teacher, said the next few months for his team will “be an educational process” away from the baseball diamond, complete with lessons about the complicated history of U.S.-Cuba relations to prep them for the trip.

“And just to explain how cool it is that we’re gonna be in Cuba now,” he added. “I think we’re going to see a real snapshot in time.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo