Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Key West leaders plan teen baseball trip to Cuba

City Commissioner Tony Yaniz is known for his exuberance on the dais at Old City Hall, often fueling up with Rockstar energy drinks or a cafe con leche.

But it's not local politics fueling his latest venture.

Try baseball, the unofficial sport of this tropical island that produced major leaguers Boog Powell, Bronson Arroyo and Khalil Greene.

And try it from a Cuban-born longtime Key Wester who slugs it out in the over-39 softball league he founded, while approaching his 63rd birthday in April.

"I've got 100 people who want to go," said Yaniz, of the reaction to the recently crafted plan to take a teen boys baseball team to Havana for Cuba's annual Scholastic Games. "Our history of sports and culture and history itself with Cuba is so intertwined. They're one and the same."

Yaniz, who left the island nation for Miami at age 10 and is a first term city commissioner, received a flood of interest after he posted about the Cuba trip on his Facebook page a week ago.

"It's gone nuts," he said. "People are calling me."

The plan is to put together a 16-member boys baseball team, the Key West All-Stars, to compete in the games this July. The age bracket could be 13 and 14-year-olds or 15 and 16-year-olds, said Yaniz.

Fundraising will be necessary, said Yaniz, who estimated the trip will cost $1,600 per person and pointed out that he would pay his own way.

Yaniz said he and School Board Member Robin Smith-Martin started talking about such a trip and reached out to others in town. If successful, the same backers want to take a girls softball team to the neighboring island in 2014.

While Americans' travel to Cuba remains restricted, having been outright forbidden after Fidel Castro took over the island nation in 1959, it's no longer completely illegal.

The Obama administration in 2011 revised the rules to allow for "people to people" licenses, which requires that Americans take part in a full-time schedule of "educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba," according to the U.S. Treasury Department guidelines.

The trips were created under President Bill Clinton in 1999 but stopped in 2003 when President George W. Bush took over the White House.

A youth soccer team from Key West has made two annual trips to Cuba for a big tournament, after coaches wrangled with the Treasury Department over whether the teens would have much free time while on the island.

In the summer of 2011, the Key West Strikers were granted the necessary travel licenses to send 13 players and 12 chaperones to Havana. Last year, the same organization sent three teams of boys and girls to the soccer tournament.

But when it comes to baseball, the iconic sport in Key West and Cuba, Yaniz said his All-Stars would be a first.

Nancy Coward, who with her husband and soccer coach Tom Coward, helped take a Key West boys soccer team to a Cuban tournament the past two years, called this great news.

"They're going to have a good opportunity over there and a life lesson," said Nancy Coward. "I wish them all the best and I'll definitely be contacting them to offer my help."

Critics still say that U.S. travel to Cuba inadvertently provides money to the Communist regime.

"This is nothing more than tourism," U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said on the Senate floor in a speech last year. "This is tourism for Americans that, at best, are curious about Cuba and, at worst, sympathize with the Cuban regime."

Yaniz, who hasn't been back to Cuba since his birth there in 1960, obviously disagrees, saying the experience will enrich kids from both nations.

"The only politics here are between the foul lines," said Yaniz. "Stolen bases, RBIs, hits and runs, suicide squeezes home runs and bunts. It's all about baseball."

Cuban officials overseeing the sports tournaments have already welcomed the Key West contingent, said Yaniz.

"I got an email from them saying, yeah, come on," said Yaniz. "They want us to come there."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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