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Mr. Graham (and His Owls) Go to Cuba

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It’s an abnormally hot October afternoon in Houston, Texas. Rice baseball coach Wayne Graham sits in the Reckling Park press box viewing the intra-squad game taking place on the field. Every now and then, he picks up the phone and relays instructions or criticisms to his coaches down on the field.

But in between those calls, the discussion is concentrated on the past. Way back to 1960 and that time Wayne Graham played baseball in Havana, Cuba.

“I was at [AAA] Buffalo, and we opened the season in Havana,” Graham tells the Press. “Naturally they were letting the northern teams play in the south. The team then was called the Havana Sugar Kings, and the league was the Triple A International League. Castro already had control [of Cuba], but I don’t think the whole world knew, well, maybe by then they did know exactly where he was going [politically].”

The Sugar Kings didn’t finish the season in Havana because conditions deteriorated during the season, and the team (loaded with future major leaguers) finished out the season playing home games in New Jersey.

“They said what provoked the move was not so much Castro as they were doing some sort of celebration and they fired guns in the air, and it came down and hit [some players]….” Graham says. “I’m not sure that’s what provoked it [the move], or whether they were going to move it anyway — eventually they would have, but I think they might have moved it prematurely.”

We’re talking about Cuba because Graham’s returning to Cuba this month for the first time since 1960. And his team, the Rice Owls, will be joining him as Rice plays a series of exhibition games against teams from the Cuban Baseball Federation from November 23 through December 4. It won’t be all fun and games for the Rice players, though, as they’ll be completing a fall-semester credit-bearing class on trends in contemporary Cuba.
And while Wayne Graham reflects on the past of Cuba, Rice closer Glenn Otto reflects on the now of the country. Otto was on the island this summer as a member of the Team USA that played the Cuban National team in a series of baseball games.

Baseball “is kind of like a way of life [in Cuba],” Otto tells the Press. “Huge crowds. They have a band in the stands, banging on drums, playing on trumpets. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Graham remembers staying at a first-class casino hotel when he was in Cuba, though he notes the place was largely empty. Otto, though, talks of a country of old cars and undeveloped land frozen in time that, he says, gives one reason to reflect on just how good things are here in the United States. And the baseball, he says, was something else.

“There were a lot of guys older than us…” he says. “They’re in and out before the game, infield and outfield, practice before the game. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The fields aren’t in the greatest condition, and they’re just making it look easy. Just flipping the ball around. They have some of the best hands I’ve ever seen. They’re having fun doing it. It’s not a job to them.”

Graham says there he didn't have a lot of second thoughts about taking the trip. If the team had the chance to go, the Owls had to go. There’s the chance to experience another country that many Americans have been unable to visit. Then there’s the chance to play some baseball against a group of people who love the game perhaps even more than Americans do.

“We are aware of the deep love the Cuban people have for the game of baseball,” Graham says. “They have a genuine passion for it, as evidenced by Major League Baseball getting all of these players.”

And Otto is well aware of the complicated role that he has on the trip. He’s not just a key player for the team, but he’s also a tour guide for his teammates as well as an ambassador of the United States.

“We have to be open-minded,” Otto says. “I have my own perspective on what it’s like to be over there, and what we want to see, and what I want to show my friends and my teammates. I kind of want to try and stay open-minded and kind of show them everything, and let them form their own perspectives. I think that’s important, not to just show them how I feel about stuff, but kind of let them think their own way about it.”

The Owls will attend cultural events throughout Cuba while holding classes at the University of Havana and other locations. They’ll tour various museums, and they’ll conduct a youth baseball clinic. It’s not something everyone gets to experience, so expect Graham, his players and the staff to see everything it’s possible to see, to do everything there is to do — and then play a little baseball while they’re at it.

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