After inception 3 years ago, Cuban Little League continues to grow

It started three years ago when Little League president Steve Keener took a trip with Major League Baseball to Cuba as the Tampa Bay Rays played the Cuban National team in a spring training exhibition game. It may have only been a meeting to get to know members of the Cuban Federation, but it was the start of something growing.

Later that summer, Keener and USA Baseball had a meeting in Panama City, Panama with the president of the Cuban Federation to put together an agreement outlining what they talked about regarding baseball and within that document was an agreement for Cuba to be affiliated with Little League Baseball over a four-year period.

“And in exchange, we’re also going to work with them on their youth program development, meaning we’re going to help them get equipment, potentially build some fields down there … and it’s sort of been a mutually beneficial relationship,” Keener said. “We’re excited to get started and help them.”

At Thursday’s annual Little League luncheon, Keener noted that a team from Havana, Cuba, had won the Cuban national tournament and was qualified to play in Willemstad, Curacao, for the Caribbean regional tournament on July 13-20.

It was an exciting announcement of having a Cuba team being able to play in a regional tournament.

“We’re kind of waiting, down to hours right now, waiting to make sure that everything is in order for their Visas for them to go to Curacao to play Caribbean regional. That’s the first step and depending on how they do there, if they were to win the championship and qualify to represent Caribbean region and come here, we’d start the process of getting them here,” Keener said. “It’s exciting.”

There’s 170 Little League programs in Cuba, and roughly 500 teams, according to Keener, an impressive amount given that meeting with Cuba happened just three years ago. The national tournament was determined with 14 provinces each having a provincial tournament to determine a provincial champion and from there, a national champion is determined to represent Cuba at the Caribbean regional tournament.

“As you can imagine, it’s a whole different level of bureaucracy to deal with in terms of how we deal with getting them from Havana to Curacao to potentially here in the United States,” Keener said. “We have it in other international programs as well, but this is first time for them and it’s all new to them.”

In attendance Thursday was Pittsburgh Pirates president Frank Coonelly and former Chicago Cubs pitcher Steve Trout, who pitched from 1983-87. Trout and Coonelly were in attendance to represent their respective clubs for the 2019 MLB Little League Classic.

For Trout, it was his first time being in the area, as he joked it took 62 years for him to finally get to the Little League World Series. The former pitcher — who’s dad Dizzy Trout also pitched in the Major Leagues with the Tigers (1939-52), Red Sox (1952) and Orioles (1957) — said he’d love to be in town for the Classic in August, but isn’t sure yet if he’d be able to.

Coonelly and the Pirates are appearing in their second MLB Little League Classic, having played in the inaugural game in 2017 against the St. Louis Cardinals and Coonelly noted that he would love to be able to be in the game every August.

“I’d love to be the host every year. I know there’s another team in eastern Pennsylvania that I know they enjoyed their experience here last year, but we love being here and if Major League baseball made this an annual event, which I fully support, we’d love to be the host team every year,” Coonelly said.

Little League also announced who will be inducted into its Hall of Excellence this year and noted that University of Washington softball coach Heather Tarr and Daytona 500 champion Austin Dillon.

Tarr competed in the Little League Baseball West regional in San Bernadino and won the 1993 Big League Softball World Series championship with Kirkland Little League. Dillon won the 2018 Daytona 500 and was a member of the 2002 North Carolina team that appeared in the Little League World Series.