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Cuba Trip Teaches Team Many Lessons Off the Field

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11537065.jpegBy Mike Gilbert, Student Staff Writer
Certainly, one would expect that taking a trip to Cuba to face some of the proud baseball nation's top professional clubs would make a team much better on the field.

Head coach Rob Cooper knows the trip made his players better on the field, but he nor the players seemed too concerned with the on-field gains of the once in a lifetime trip.

They knew what a special opportunity it was to share their culture with Cubans and gain knowledge of Cuban culture at the same time, and after the trip the focus was on how that experience helped the team grow as people.

"There was an impact that our guys felt from the people of Cuba and from seeing the things that they saw and I feel like our guys representing Penn State, representing their families and as an extension representing the United States of America really made a positive impact on everybody they came in touch with," said Cooper. "...Some of these guys might go into international business someday. Some of these guys might go into politics someday and sit across from somebody, and all these experiences can really help them down the road."

One of the major takeaways that the players shared was the culture shock of going into a totally new place and seeing all the changes that come with traveling internationally to Cuba. Junior Nick Riotto felt an impalpable change as soon as he landed.

"For me it was really leaving the airplane and seeing just a totally new place. Really, it was just seeing the old cars, no real cell phones, no real TVs in the airport, just a conveyor belt, your suitcases and then the outside world," said Riotto.

By extension, seeing the Cuban children and their way of life was a major change for the young men on the team who were kids not too long ago.

"It makes you appreciate the things you take for granted...They take baseballs for gold down there...To them it's a treasure," said Cooper.

To the players, there was so much more than baseball that the Cuban culture could offer them. They learned a lot about the Cuban culture from the experience of playing baseball.

"Baseball is a way for so many of those players to express themselves as individuals because so much of their lives is dictated by their government, but it's a way for them to express themselves and they can be really demonstrative," said Cooper. "I don't mean that negatively, I mean it more as it's a celebration for them a lot of the time. I told [my players] beforehand that you'll see a pitcher throw a bad pitch you'll see the catcher get up and appear to get in an argument with him and they were."

The Cubans take pride in their baseball culture and use it as a form of expression, and that is something the team took away from the trip as well. It was applicable to coach Cooper when he talked about how Americans were outraged during the Major League Baseball playoffs as they saw Jose Bautista aggressively flip his bat after a big home run, but he explained how in different cultures, that is accepted.

"That's just a part of the culture, it's not considered disrespectful to them and in their culture," said Cooper.

The fans were an incredible part of the entire experience. The Lions played the most regarded team in Cuba, the Industriales on one day, and played Industriales' current top rival the next, defending champion and current league leader Ciego de Avila, but played the rival in the Industriales' stadium. That created an amazing rapport between fan bases, as they were having a little competitive fun with other during the game.

"Both fan bases were talking to each other; it was something you have to experience when you're sitting there as a bystander and are watching, and its about pride and their region and that was cool," said Cooper.

The fans treated the games almost as soccer matches, with loud horns and chants in the stands and a lot of positive energy from the fans and the kids watching the games.

"Seeing the look on a kids face when you give him a ball, a T-shirt, a hat, or even a pair of spikes was probably the best experience," said pitcher Tim Scholly. "Making someone else's life better knowing we have so much and they might not have as much as we do was very special.

"...They'd come up to us and say 'Americans', 'baseball team', stuff like that, and they saw us on the news and everything and that was special."

Of course, walking through Old Havana had its perks as well, between its beauty and the interactions with all of the locals.

"All of us going through there [Havana] and seeing everything Cuba had to offer while we're all trying to figure out what these people are trying to say to us and they're trying to figure out what we're saying to them definitely brought us all closer together trying to overcome that," said Riotto.

"The language barrier was pretty tough but we were playing against some of the top talent across the world, and to be able to talk to them about their experiences and about playing baseball and how they truly love the game down there was certainly a great experience for all of us," added Scholly.

Cooper put it all into perspective when reflecting on the nation.

"At the end of the day they're people who love baseball, they're human beings and they're very proud of who they are and their nation and their way of life," said Cooper

It is refreshing to see the deeper meanings and lessons that the baseball team has come back with that can help them become better people, not just better baseball players, and those types of lessons were the first that they brought up when talking about the trip.

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