Senior softball diplomacy is a hit in Cuba


Alan Bresnick, 71, hasn’t played a complete game of baseball since 1955 when he was a senior in high school. But that didn’t stop him from signing on with the Eastern Massachusetts Senior Softball League in the spring of 2009. His brother-in-law had told him about the league and mentioned its special rules to protect older athletes. So every Monday night from April through September, he left his home in Vineyard Haven to spend the night in his Boston-area condominium. Refreshed and ready to go each Tuesday, he’d assume his position on the field as catcher or first baseman, surrounded by fellow enthusiasts, some with bum knees, sore lower backs or fallen arches — but all sharing a lifelong love for America’s favorite pastime.

Meanwhile, on a similar ball field shaded by palm trees in Havana, Cuba, men with the same passion practiced their batting, fielding, running, and strategic play. On November 12, Mr. Bresnick and a group of 55 other senior softball aficionados boarded a plane in Boston to spend seven days competing against their Cuban counterparts.

“I heard about the trip on the league website and from my team captain,” Mr. Bresnick says. A retired corporate executive, he is part-owner of Island Food Products (IFP), the only full-service food distributor based on the Vineyard. “It was a chance to play ball and see Cuba. It sounded like the trip of a lifetime.”

Organized by senior players Mike Eizenberg, a third baseman and international cultural exchange specialist from Wellesley, and Stu Gray, a Boston lawyer and admitted adrenaline-addicted pitcher, the trip took about nine months to put together. While President Obama has opened the door to discussions with the communist country located just 90 miles south of Key West, Forida, travel to the island is still severely restricted.

“We were issued a license to enter the country to participate in softball and that was our focus,” Mr. Bresnick says. And, while they did play every day, they fit in several cultural activities and numerous walks around Old Havana. His impressions: “It’s a very poor society. The buildings in Havana were beautiful but run down. You get the sense that the people are very resilient — they understand the rules and they accept them.”

The four U.S. teams were made up of 14 players each from their mid-50s to their mid-70s. Each team played seven games. And, while the Cubans outplayed the Americans, the scores seemed to fade in the glow of goodwill.

“From the moment we arrived, the Cuban players and people we met were welcoming and friendly,” Mr. Bresnick says. An opening day ceremony, complete with a World Series-style line-up of both teams on the field, a 30-piece band and packed grandstand set the tone for the week ahead. At the sound of both countries’ national anthems, all players grew teary-eyed. “There was a lump in my throat. It was an emotional moment for everyone,” Mr. Bresnick says

Softball, a direct descendant of baseball, became popular in the U.S. by the late 1800s as a way for baseball players to stay in shape during the winter. Originally intended for indoor play, it was called “indoor baseball” until officials moved it outdoors shortly after it caught on. Softball was introduced to Cuba in the 1860s by Cubans who had studied in the U.S. and by American sailors who were on duty in the Caribbean port city. The first Cuban team was formed in 1868 and played against the crew of an American schooner anchored in a nearby harbor. Just 141 years later, Mr. Bresnick and his teammates arrived in Havana, with custom baseball caps in hand for all players.

“We all wore hats designed with Cuban and American flags on them,” he says. “People stopped us on the street to talk to us and to tell us about family members in the U.S.”

In a strange twist of fate, it turned out that one of the Cuban players on the opposing team had lived just a half-mile from where Mr. Bresnick had grown up in Brooklyn. “He spoke English and we realized he’d lived near my home for three years when we were young.”

The American players were so enthusiastic about their experience that the organizers say there is already talk of returning. “I’d go back again,” Mr. Bresnick says. Until then, he’ll continue his training regimen: taking spin classes four mornings a week at six o’clock, working out with a trainer one day a week and exercising on his own. He does lots of stretching, especially his shoulders and back for throwing and his legs for catching. “On the seventh day I rest out of sheer exhaustion.”

A follow-up trip to Cuba is being planned for this November, and Mr. Bresnick has already signed up