- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When the news broke not long ago about the United States and Cuba attempting to restore diplomatic ties — and baseball commissioner Rob Manfred’s plan to play an exhibition game on the island in 2016 — it brought back the memories of a lifetime for Bethesda’s Mike Bryan.

The 27-year-old accountant had a front row seat to the last time a Major League Baseball team played on Cuban soil. In fact, you could argue as an 11-year-old kid, Bryan was part of the first unit arriving on the beach in Cuba for the 1999 American invasion — days before the Baltimore Orioles would play the Cuban national team in a historic game.

On a small sandlot field in Havana, Bryan and his young teammates from Washington and Baltimore established their own diplomatic relations with an impromptu game against young Cuban ballplayers.

The experience would have a profound impact on Bryan, something he carries with him to this day — and looks forward to perhaps someday going back. “It changed my life,” he said.

He was an accidental passenger on the historic trip. Part of the contingent that traveled to Havana included players from the Northwest Little League in the District. Bryan went along as an accidental tourist.

“I lived in Bethesda and played in the Little League there,” he said. “But my best friend, who played in the District, his father worked for the CIA and they wouldn’t let him go on the trip. So my father went as a chaperone for him, and I got to go along.”

As soon as they arrived in Havana and settled down in their hotel — several days before the scheduled game between the Orioles and the Cuban national team — the group asked their bus driver to find them a game to play in.

“We asked him to take us to some ball fields where he knew kids would be playing,” Bryan said. “We just hopped on the bus with no plan and stumbled across a field where some kids were playing. Some of the people on the bus were bilingual, so we stopped, they talked, and in a few minutes we were out on the field playing baseball with these Cuban kids.”

I did the same thing, and happened to wind up on the same field that day watching the game.

I had arrived in Havana to cover the Orioles trip a day before a large contingent of baseball writers would soon converge on the city. I had a guide and asked him to drive around until he found a field where Cuban kids were playing baseball.

I stumbled on to Bryan’s game and watched something special take place between two distant peoples bonding through baseball.

“We never see anything of the American people,” Jorge Butros Sr., the father of one of the Cuban players, told me. “It’s very beautiful to see these kids come here and play baseball. It’s wonderful.”

Bryan said that impromptu game on a trip filled with scheduled activities — including a visit to a workout by the Cuban national team — is his fondest memory.

“That was my biggest takeaway from the trip,” he said. “I remember thinking how cool it was that we were able to play a baseball game without speaking the same language — just walking up and playing the game. It was special to walk up and play, even though we didn’t have much in common except a love of the game.”

The rest of the trip was not quite as spontaneous. The kids attended the Orioles-Cuban national team game. “We sat about 100 feet from Fidel Castro,” Bryan said.

When Bryan returned to the United States, one memory stuck with him as a young boy — the worn out and makeshift equipment the Cuban kids played with. I remember that the Cuban kids admired the equipment that the American youths had — and wound up donating after the game.

“Our kids always find a way to play,” Erick Gonzalez, the coach for the Cuban kids, told me. “They find a solution. They love to play.”

Bryan wanted to be part of that solution.

As a high school student at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, Bryan started a nonprofit organization to gather equipment to send to Cuba.

“I had people bring in new and gently-used equipment and would then send them down to a contact we made in Cuba,” he said. “It made me appreciate the life we have here in America.”

Those connections Bryan made as an 11-year-old will last a lifetime. He hopes to resume them soon — along with much of the rest of America.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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