by BOB DORAN
THE BOYS WHO PLAY BASEBALL FOR THE LOST COAST PIRATES ARE only 10, 11 and 12 years old, but they are preparing for an international diplomatic mission. It's something they call "baseball diplomacy."
In July the Pirates of Southern Humboldt embark on a road trip to Cuba where they will play three games against teams of Cuban kids.
Right now the team is busy playing against teams like the Giants from Alderpoint, and the White Sox and the Phillies of Redway. The Pirates home field is in Whitethorn and the team draws players from small towns in the Southern Humboldt hills, communities like Whale Gulch, Ettersburg and Shelter Cove. They are part of the Southern Humboldt Little League where 24 teams play in four divisions.
The Lost Coast Pirates left to right -
"The Southern Humboldt league is one of the largest in the country geographically," said Rob Then, league president. "It stretches from Leggett to South Fork and from Alderpoint to Petrolia and Shelter Cove."
Then was once a coach for the Pirates. His brother-in-law, Richard Murray, has been the team manager for 20 years. Murray was also instrumental in building the Pirates home field, a project he says he did "with a little help from my friends."
Murray is also a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6354 which has been the Pirates sponsor since 1985. And he is a member of the Garberville Veterans for Peace.
"In 1998 the Veterans for Peace approached the team. At that time I was one of the coaches," said Then. "They were looking for donations of used baseball equipment to take with them to Cuba. The kids on the team went through their garages and got some things together."
Realizing that unused bats, balls, gloves and outgrown cleats were probably gathering dust in garages throughout the area, the Pirates put the word out to the other SoHum teams.
"We ended up sending quite a load of equipment to Cuba that year," Then said. "The Pirates included a team photo and a stack of pen pal letters along with a note saying it would be great to play in Cuba some day. We never dreamed that it would really happen."
"Our chapter of Veterans for Peace has been going to Cuba for some years along with Pastors for Peace," said Fredy Champagne, chapter president.
"In the past we've sent vans full of medical supplies and computers. We're linking up all of the rural medical clinics with the main health care system. We've sent buses loaded with supplies.
Team manager Richard Murray
"Last year we brought school supplies plus two teachers and four students from Whale Gulch School along with our delegation. This year we're sending the Lost Coast Pirates," Champagne said.
The Veterans for Peace chapter agreed to be the team's sponsor for the trip. The VFW post kicked in $500 to get the ball rolling.
"We've been going down there with the Pastors for Peace for a few years now; they're experts at taking peace delegations to Cuba. So it was decided we would take the team along on the 10th Caravan to Cuba.
Champagne is travelling with his wife and grandson.
"He's too young to be on the Pirates. He's on another team, but he'll be an honorary bat boy or something like that," he said.
The Garberville-based VFW Post 6394 does not always see eye-to-eye with the national organization, Champagne said. Unlike most VFW posts whose membership draws largely World War II and Korean War veterans, the post is predominantly made up of Viet Nam vets. Many of them also are members of Veterans for Peace, official sponsor of the Cuban trip.
"Our post believes in waging peace, and we've been supportive of lifting the embargo," Champagne said.
"When I went in '98 I was the commander of Post 6394, and we were the first post in the country to call for lifting of the embargo. When I went to Cuba as post commander I was ordered by the VFW national not to talk about our resolution. I was ordered not to put emblems on the vehicles or wear my hat in public representing the VFW because our position was not the same as the national's position.
"Of course I took that as an affront to my First Amendment rights. I wore my hat everywhere I went and was photographed with (Cuban Premier) Fidel (Castro) wearing my commander's hat with all the medals on it.
"The old guard got a little bit upset about it and the result was I was court-marshalled and lost my membership privileges for four years. Technically at this point I'm a life member of the VFW with no privileges."
While the Pirates are an official Little League team, for the trip to Cuba they are calling themselves a youth baseball team.
"This is not a Little League-sanctioned trip," Then said. "Little League is a federally chartered organization and the name is a registered trademark so we can't use the term in any of our fund-raising."
While the veterans are driving from Humboldt County with a load of supplies -- including another collection of used baseball gear -- the team will fly as far as San Antonio. They meet up with 14 other Pastors for Peace caravans from around the country converging on McAllen, Texas, on the bottom tip of the United States.
After crossing the border the U.S.-Cuba Friendshipment Caravan heads for Tampico on the Gulf of Mexico.
"In Tampico we load all of our trucks, buses, ambulances, bookmobiles and other equipment onto a ship which departs for Cuba," said Champagne. "Meanwhile we fly to Havana."
While Champagne makes it all sound easy, there are complications. There is still an embargo forbidding trade with Cuba.
"It's not unlawful to travel to Cuba," said Then. "The Constitution guarantees us the right to travel. But it's unlawful to spend any money."
Specifically it violates the Trading With the Enemy Act of 1917. To get around the embargo the delegation will visit the country as guests of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, a nondenominational religious organization which distributes the supplies the group brings along. As a result they will stay in churches.
Rob Then, Southern Humboldt Little League President.
While some may see this experiment in baseball diplomacy as aiding and abetting the enemy, the kids are looking forward to the trip as an exciting adventure.
"These are 10- to 12-year-old kids and they have varying degrees of awareness," said Then. "They never had to dive under their desks or duck and cover during the Cuban missile crisis. That was our generation. The kids are essentially going down to play ball and have fun. In the meantime they are beginning to learn more about Cuba."
The Pirates' centerfielder is Alex Finn from Ettersburg. Finn is in the 6th grade at Whitethorn School where he one of the 58 students. His class, a mix of 5th and 6th graders, has just 16 students.
Before a recent game against the Fortuna Yankees he was interviewed by two television reporters and one from this newspaper. Asked what he will get from the trip, he responds confidently.
"I'll get to know more about their country. I'll learn a lot more Spanish. And I guess I'll get a suntan," he adds with a laugh.
How much does he know about Cuba now?
"I know that they speak Spanish and make cigars -- tobacco is one of their big industries. I know Fidel Castro is in charge there and he likes baseball. I think that's neat.
"I don't know much else about baseball in Cuba, but I know that the kids we are playing play all year round. They have baseball schools. I think they are probably pretty good. They'll probably beat us."
Does he know anything about the politics involved?
"I know that America and Cuba aren't very fond of each other. I'm only 11 years old so I can't really say for sure, but I figure we're all the same in some perspective."
Then says that he has received nothing but positive response to the idea of getting American and Cuban kids together to play ball.
"I think Americans as a whole are kind of embarrassed about the Elian Gonzalez debacle. Here's this tiny island that has had ties with us for years. To treat them like an enemy is just absurd."
The team has already met part of the expense for the trip, but additional support is needed. The veterans and parent chaperones will pay their own way, but the team needs to raise a total of $24,750 to pay for airfare for the ball players and some former members of the team who are going along as interpreters.
"We already have the ever-faithful Humboldt County-style raffle going and we're selling `Baseball Diplomacy' T-shirts and ball caps," said Then.
The team is throwing a dinner-dance benefit at the Mateel June 30, with music by Tubesteak Jones and Frida's Circus.
"We're also trying to gather some more good used baseball equipment to take with us," he added. All Sport in Garberville and the Sport and Cycle stores in Fortuna and Eureka have agreed to act as a drop point for equipment.
Those who would like to help the Pirates get to Cuba can send a tax-deductible donation to: Baseball Diplomacy, P.O. Box 84, Whitethorn, CA. 95589. For further information visit www.baseballdiplomacy.org or call 986-7831.
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