BOSTON — The Eastern Massachusetts Senior Softball Association sent four teams to Cuba in 2009 to play exhibitions against local squads. They’ve returned every year since.
EMASS Softball player Michael Eizenberg runs a travel business and came up with the plan. Over the years, the Cuban and U.S. players have grown close, so the Wellesley resident decided to try to bring a team from Cuba to Boston. And this year, for the first time, one of the teams received permission to travel from Cuba to the U.S.
On Saturday morning in Jamaica Pond Park, the teams were scrimmaging and Eizenberg was still amazed his Cuban friends made it.
“No one ever believed that it would be possible for them to come here. So after three years of going there, all of a sudden magically we received permission both from the U.S. government and the Cuban government for the players to come here,” Eizenberg said. “[The Cubans] say that this proves that nothing is impossible. If this can happen, anything can happen.”
Reinaldo Linares, one of the Cuban players, was surprised the trip happened.
“We said, ‘Oh, Mike are you sure?’ and he said, ‘Yes, yes. I’m going to invite you, all the team.’ And now, we are here.”
But this is not the first time Linares has been to the states. When he was a boy, his family moved to New York City because his father, Rogelio, played in the Negro Leagues.
“He came with all my family here in 1950, we came here to New York,” Linares said. “We live in Long Island. We returned to Cuba in 1959, [the time] of the revolution in Cuba.”
And baseball runs in the family. Reinaldo Linares spent 11 years on the Cuban national team. Today, he’s 65-years-old, tall and trim, and as he gracefully roams centerfield, Linares looks half his age. Several of his teammates were also elite baseball players.
EMASS Softball’s Les Gore says the Cubans and Americans all range from 55 to 75-years-old, but their sports pedigrees are a bit mismatched.
“The people playing here representing the U.S., we’re talking about doctors, lawyers, plumbers. We’re just average guys who love to play softball,” the Newton resident explained. “But the Cubans, many of the people who play for the Cuban softball leagues were in their time probably some of the most prominent baseball players that the island has ever produced.”
On Saturday night, both teams both got a taste of the Major League limelight at Fenway Park. With his Cuban teammates and American friends behind him, 74-year-old shortstop Tony Gonzales threw out a ceremonial first pitch. As the local championship teams like to do, the softball squads also took a Boston Duck Tour.
The Friendship Games are apolitical and both sides skip any discussion of relations between Cuba and the U.S. Gary Siegel lives in Needham and has been on all three of EMASS Softball’s visits to the island nation.
“[The Cuban players are] in awe of what we have here in America that we just take for granted that they just don’t have. You bring them into a supermarket, they’ve never seen such a thing,” the Needham resident said. “A whole aisle for cat food and dog food? It makes me realize how much I have and how grateful I am for everything that we have here.”
On Thursday, the Cuban players flew to Miami where many of them will visit with family members who they’ve never met or haven’t seen in decades. But when they leave, there will still be some unfinished business. After opening ceremonies on Sunday on Boston Common, the Cubans swept a two-game set. EMASS Softball took two games on Tuesday in Wayland, leaving the tournament tied. The teams will meet again in Cuba, but Siegel says the game has a familiar sound at home or on the road.
“An out is an out and a ball is a ball. And it’s called the same in both languages,” the 63-year-old said, laughing. “It’s either ‘uno out’ or ‘one out’, but it’s definitely an out.”
The rubber match is set for this November when EMASS Softball returns to Havana for more friendship games.