Cuban youth, major league stars bond over baseball

Los Angeles Dodgers player Yasiel Puig, from Cuba, greets young baseball players before giving a clinic in Havana. (© AP Images)

More than 100 Cuban boys wearing the uniforms of local baseball teams stood in rows, smiling nervously as they got tips and training from some of their major league idols — men who were born in Cuba and now play for Major League Baseball clubs.

Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Peña and Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu were among those who ran 10- and 11-year-old Cuban players through a three-hour skills camp on the second day of a three-day mission meant to improve relations between Major League Baseball and Cuba.

“We’re going to give our best on this visit, and we appreciate the opportunity we’ve been given,” Puig said. “Everything else we leave to God and destiny.”

Eleven-year-old Yassel Veranes grinned widely as he waited for the clinic to begin. “It’s my dream to be here to see them,” Yassel said. He was brought to Havana’s Latinoamericano Stadium by his father, Elio Veranes, who watched the proceedings with pride, according to an Associated Press news report.

Joined by pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo and other Cuban baseball stars, the major league players divided the youth into five groups and ran them through calisthenics and batting, pitching and catching drills. And they offered their advice.

Cuba and the United States have shared a century-old love of baseball. During their current trip, Major League Baseball Players Association executives planned to talk business with their Cuban counterparts, saying they were optimistic about sealing a deal by early 2016 for the Tampa Bay Rays to play two spring-training games in Cuba.

A fan holds photos of MLB players Yasiel Puig, from Cuba, and Miguel Cabrera, from Venezuela, before a baseball clinic with children in Havana. (© AP Images)

When they weren’t getting tips or training, the boys asked their idols to sign baseballs, or have their photographs taken together.

Peña, dressed in his St. Louis team jersey, said he was happy “to come back to see my family, to share with them.” He added that he enjoyed meeting with his young fans in Havana. Another clinic was planned in Matanzas, east of the capital.

Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association jointly announced that they will provide a $200,000 grant to Cáritas Cubana, a nongovernmental provider of humanitarian, social and emergency services to Cuba, in recognition of the three-day goodwill tour.