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In uncertain times, Philly kids head to Cuba to play ball

The ping of metal bats on pitched baseballs echoed in a Bala Cynwyd gym, where a dozen middle schoolers trained for their coming series.

Assistant coach Alan Tauber pitches batting practice to Jack Donahue, 14, during training in Bala Cynwyd.
Assistant coach Alan Tauber pitches batting practice to Jack Donahue, 14, during training in Bala Cynwyd.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The ping of metal bats on pitched baseballs echoed in a Bala Cynwyd gym, where a dozen middle schoolers trained for their coming series.

In the glass-walled room overlooking the action, their parents, who will travel with them, mulled the logistics of a journey trickier than any they had ever undertaken.

What type of currency should they carry? How much? What are they permitted to bring, and, more important, leave behind?

Assembled informally a few months ago by a handful of baseball-loving friends in Philadelphia's suburbs, predominantly Lower Merion, this self-funded team is set to embark on a goodwill sports trip to Cuba.

The itinerary has them leaving Miami the day after Christmas, landing in Santa Clara, touring Havana and its outskirts, playing five games against a premier Cuban youth team, and returning New Year's Day.

What began as a rare opportunity to experience the sport inside baseball-obsessed Cuba, however, has taken on a deeper purpose, given recent events.

The point of the trip now, organizers of the Philly-Cuba Goodwill Tour 2016 say, is not to tally wins and losses. Rather, they want to be citizen-ambassadors at a time when President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to end the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement begun two years ago under President Obama, and the recent death of Fidel Castro has ratcheted up the political uncertainty in the island nation.

"If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate the deal," Trump tweeted Nov. 27, two days after Castro died.

"It would be foolish not to take the president-elect at his word. Others in the future may not have this opportunity," said Alan Tauber, a Philadelphia lawyer who along with his wife, Andrea Weiss, a rabbi, helped conceive the goodwill tour. Their son, Ilan, 13, a student at Bala Cynwyd Middle School, is a player.

The team has a website,, but no formal name. "From the Cubans' perspective," said a parent-organizer, "we'll probably be called 'the Philly Kids.' "

As a "people-to-people" cultural exchange, the trip is a permitted exception to the half-century-old U.S. economic embargo of Cuba.

The 11 teammates, all 13 and 14 years old, don't appear to know a lot about the roots of the animosity between the two nations, which began in 1961 after the United States closed its embassy in Havana and severed diplomatic ties. It intensified a year later with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"I know Cuba is very old, without much money, and it's a communist country," said 13-year-old Ryan Orlov, of Bala Cynwyd, a catcher.

As parents, "we have a little more historical perspective," said Ryan's father, Steve "Wally" Orlov, 53. "We understand the magnitude" of reestablishing U.S.-Cuba relations.

Jon Rubin, the Friends Central School baseball coach, has donated his time to shape the Americans, including his 13-year-old son, Justin, into a cohesive team.

But during a recent fund-raiser for the trip at the Greeks Bar & Restaurant in Narberth, Rubin, of Bryn Mawr, expressed a hope that the two countries also will swap players for some games to minimize the inherent ethnocentrism in their competition.

"It would be so cool," he said, "to see our kids playing side by side."

However, not everyone is on board with the venture. The parents of "one or two" invited players "made the decision that they are not going to go" because of "principled objections to Cuba's communist regime," Tauber said.

On Dec. 30, the team is scheduled to meet Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the first presidential choice for U.S. ambassador to Cuba in more than 55 years, at his residence in Havana.

The trip also has a humanitarian purpose. The Americans will deliver much-needed nonprescription medicines and reading glasses to a Catholic church and a synagogue in Havana. In the towns where they play, they will donate a mountain of baseball equipment, including dozens of balls, bats, gloves, hats, and jerseys.

Sponsors include Nike and Pocket Radar, maker of speed-measurement devices, as well as Pitch in for Baseball, a Harleysville nonprofit that provides equipment to boys and girls around the world.

They "jumped over themselves to help us out," said Orlov, a board member of Lower Merion Little League, who used his extensive contacts in the world of youth baseball to generate donations.

The Phillies organization stepped up, too, donating 14 gloves, 50 Phillies T-shirts, 100 caps, 10 sets of cleats, four Easton bats, and eight dozen Rawlings baseballs. The youth team plans to carry 30 rolling duffels of paraphernalia.

Including parents and siblings, the U.S. entourage will comprise about 30 people, each paying about $3,500, including airfare and room and board. A parent who wished to remain anonymous is covering the costs for a couple of players who lacked the money to go.

The American players are packing three jerseys - red, white, and blue. Each is decorated with the crossed flags of the United States and Cuba.

The shirts also bear the bordered monogram JF-16, to memorialize the initials and jersey number of Jose Fernandez, the spectacular Cuba-born pitcher for the Miami Marlins who died in a boating accident in September.

The Americans expect to leave their jerseys behind, or trade them for souvenirs offered by the Cuban players.

They will be keepsakes from a moment in time, said Tauber, in a Cuba "likely to be passing from history in its current form."