Jan. 16, 2010
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Two summers ago, when Steve Smith happened across a story about Samford University's baseball team planning a trip to Cuba, the Baylor baseball coach forwarded the story to Dr. L.M. Dyson.
"I've known Dr. Dyson for a long time, and I knew that he traveled frequently to Cuba," Smith said. "I just thought he would be interested in knowing about this U.S. college that was contemplating going to Cuba."
Not knowingly, but that e-mail was the genesis for a trip that Smith and the Baylor baseball team will take next week.
"I knew where he was headed with it," Smith said. "I had not originally thought about it like that. But he saw where this could have a real big purpose down there."
Already granted a religious visa by the Cuban government, Baylor finally received approval last Wednesday from the United States Department of Treasury and Department of State for a Humanitarian license that allows them to travel into the Communist country.
"We emphasized that this is a baseball team, but it's not a baseball trip," said Dr. Dyson, an associate professor of finance, insurance and real estate, who made his first trip to Cuba in 1999 on international press credentials. Since then, he's been back numerous times to work on projects through the First Baptist Church of Santa Clara, Cuba, and the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba.
"They're like, `Religious visa, humanitarian license, baseball team. . . . . Huh?''' said Tom Hill, Baylor's Associate Athletic Director for Facilities and Events, who will travel with the team along with Athletics Chaplain Wes Yeary, former University Chaplain Dr. Milton Cunningham and Diane Jee, Baylor's Assistant Events Manager.
"And the way we bring all that together is through Baylor's mission itself. We're not going down there to pick a team with them. What I envision is small groups, almost like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle groups, where you've got 10 kids and you're doing some grounders. And then at the end of that time, you go over a personal testimony or some goal-setting ideas, things like that"
Because of a travel embargo, trips to Cuba from the United States are next to impossible and must be approved by the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control. Approvals can take anywhere from six months to a full year, and only if the trip meets strict guidelines, Dr. Dyson said.
"Originally, I had wanted to go back in the fall," Smith said. "But I was terribly naïve on how quickly these things can get done. So that became not doable, so we came up with what was really the next best date, and here we are."
The team and the rest of the traveling party is scheduled to leave next Friday, Jan. 22, flying from Dallas to Miami, Fla., and then on to Havana, Cuba. On Friday, Hill received final approval from the University General Counsel to book the flights - the last piece in what has turned out to be miles of red tape.
Dyson said it's just a matter of going through the process and going through all the proper channels.
"It's always possible. It's just how long," he said. "There have been times where I found out (on Tuesday) and left on Thursday."
Working through the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba, one of the baseball team's biggest projects will be helping to renovate a sports complex in Havana that was originally built in the 1980s by the Soviet Union.
"It was immaculate when it was built," said Smith, who went with Hill and Dr. Dyson on an advance trip three weeks ago. "You can see where it was really nice. It includes an Olympic swimming pool with platform diving, basketball courts, volleyball courts, racquetball, squash and a big baseball stadium.
"But when the Soviets left Cuba in '90, it now looks like the typical run-down rec center anywhere we might have it in a bad part of town. It's a concrete stadium, so you're not going to tear it that up too bad. But it's in need of work: paint, for one. The (pitcher's) mound on the field is no more, really. Home plate's no more. The dirt in the infield was actually OK."
Tentatively, the team will also do some baseball clinics with the children attending a nearby Baptist encampment. But by NCAA rules, the players are not allowed to participate or compete in any organized games.
"I came back convinced that this was something we could do," Smith said, "and the guys would have a real life-changing experience."
Dr. Dyson said he doesn't like to "over-dramatize," but he calls this a "historical" trip.
"It took me a while to grasp the magnitude of what's occurring down there, because of this trip," Hill said. "This is Baylor University, the largest Baptist university in the world, sending a contingency of a high-profile group. This is not three or four athletes, this is a baseball team of a Big 12 school. This is a big deal."
Coupling with Caring Partners International, a group based in Ohio, Hill estimates that over $200,000 worth of goods have already been shipped down to Cuba.
Two of the 40x10-foot containers, which were packed and loaded by the team, included shirts, shoes, bicycles, handicap tricycles for children and 20,000 pounds of rice - a donation from Rick Caywood Ministries of Crawford, Texas.
"When we were talking with (Caring Partners), they say there's a guy down there in Crawford, Texas, that has 20,000 pounds of rice, and we're trying to figure out how to do this," Hill said. "And I'm like, `Who is this guy?' And they say it's Rick Caywood. I know Rick Caywood. He goes to our church. Unbelievable! So I call him and ask him if he wants to partner with us, and he was like, `Well, heck yeah.' So he's going on the trip with us to see his ministry in operation down there."
The third container that was shipped to Havana contains the equipment and supplies for a dental office that Dr. Gerald Cox, a Waco-based pediatric dentist, will help set up at a nursing home run by the Baptist Convention.
Also making the trip will be Manuel Galindo, a chaplain, baseball official and former president of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas. Friends with Dyson since their high school days in Rockport, Texas, Galindo has been on the last five trips to Cuba with Dyson and "speaks the language."
"And they know him very well down there," Hill said.
Dr. Victor Gonzalez, president of the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba and chief of oncology at Calixto Garcia Hospital in Havana, told Dyson that "doors have been opened to us in terms of our mission that are phenomenal, because of this project."
The team will be based at a hotel in Havana and will return to the States on the following Wednesday, Jan. 27 - just two days before the opening day of official workouts for the 2010 season.
NOTE: If you are interested in helping fund the trip, send checks to the baseball office at: Baylor Ballpark, 1612 South University Parks Drive, Waco, Texas, 76706. Or you can make a donation online at the Give to Baylor webpage at www.baylor.edu/give. For your checks and online donations, please designate it as Baylor Sports Mission Fund (Baseball Cuba Trip).