Traveling to a foreign country can be both exciting and intimidating. Traveling to a country, where for many years its border had been closed, is daunting. Just one year after opening diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since the 1950’s, the University of Richmond baseball team set out to tour the unfamiliar country where the sport is overwhelmingly popular.
There was one student-athlete who was up for the challenge, and was ready to put his skills to the test.
For junior Kurtis Brown the trip to Cuba was not only eye opening, but also a great way for him to use the tools he had learned in the classroom.
Prior to leaving the United States, Brown and the rest of the team attended lectures and classes to prepare for the trip abroad. The team learned about the Cuban culture, the history of the country, and gained an understanding of what they were about to embark upon. As a business administration major with a concentration in finance, and a minor in Latin American and Iberian Studies. Brown had taken other classes about Cuba, he was familiar with the culture, and understood the Spanish language. After landing in Havana, he quickly realized the country was portrayed just as it was in classes and books.
“They talk about old cars there – they were everywhere, it was exactly what you read about. You also hear it is run down, but I would say it’s even more run down, and it is like they are stuck in the past,” he said. “It was really sad because it was so run down and the mundane lifestyles. I thought they did a good job telling us what it was going to be like in terms of scenery and the environment, and the people just loved us so much.”
The popularity of baseball in Cuba is overwhelming. The sport gained popularity as the country sought to replace traditional colonial Spanish culture, and baseball is a popular street game where many kids can pick up the basic skills with a stick and a ball.
During the nine-day tour, Brown and the Spiders saw how much the Cuban people love the sport and the players. Brown recalled one night some of the team went out to dinner in downtown Havana, which made them realize how much the Cuban people idolize baseball players.
“The guy [at the restaurant] let us sit in a private room when we told him we were there for baseball. They told us how much they loved baseball players,” Brown said. “He even brought out his phone and showed me all these Cuban players, like Aroldis Chapman, and asked me if I knew them – and of course I do, but they didn’t realize that they are household names for us.” “One of the comments he made was ‘every time I talk about baseball I get goosebumps, because I just love it so much – it’s my one passion in life.’ That was a really cool experience.”
While in Cuba, Brown and the Spiders played four games in Cuba against amateur teams across the country. Like soccer, baseball is one of the universal sports that no matter what language you speak, you can still play the game.
Outside of playing, Brown took on an additional role of an unofficial spokesman for the team, as he was relied upon to be one of the primary communicators, including doing interviews for the Cuban radio.
When Brown enrolled at the University of Richmond, he was carrying college credit, so he figured he might as well continue to learn Spanish. “I thought it couldn’t hurt to keep learning Spanish, it is something that I’m passionate about and it’s a skill I enjoy learning,” he said. Despite learning Spanish in school, Brown quickly realized the Spanish he had learned was a vastly different than the Spanish that was spoken in Cuba.
“When you learn Spanish in school, you don’t learn the Cuban slang,” he said. “Everybody has their own slang, so that was tough, but it was cool learning it.”
Following each game, the Spiders would exchange gear with the Cuban teams as well as some of the kids that were around. As the team’s unofficial translator, the kids would go up to Brown when they wanted to trade gear. “It was cool, these kids would come up to me and be like ‘tell him I want that for this.”
This was not the first time Brown stepped out of his comfort zone and had to overcome a language barrier. During his freshman year, he took a Spanish in the Community class. Outside of the classroom, the students had to complete service hours. Brown and a classmate were put in a situation where they had to go to a church each Monday night and teach a citizenship class.
“They gave us the book and told us we were going to be teachers, and to try to teach them some English,” he said. “They were trying to pass the citizenship test to become U.S. citizens while also learning English. It was a really cool experience.”
Not only did Brown grow on the trip to Cuba, but the team also had some time to bond as as unit. Brown, who is one of the Spiders’ three captains, said the trip was especially important for the freshmen.
“They [the freshmen] got to play games with us and playing games that are equivalent to the games during the season – and they also got to be in that situation before the season started,” he said. “It helped us to get to know the freshmen. Of course we practice together everyday, but outside of baseball, we live different lives, so I thought that helped a ton.”
For Brown, the trip also helped continue to guide him in the right direction for a career after graduation, and reaffirmed his commitment to learning Spanish as well as studying the culture.
“I’m a finance guy, and I’m really interested in global currency and foreign exchange markets along with using my knowledge of Latin America,” he said. “The trip to Cuba especially helped because there is so much room for growth and opportunity in emerging markets and being there, and seeing a different perspective on things – it’s like well I’ve learned all this stuff, I don’t want to have learned all this stuff, something like Spanish and culture, and not use it to my advantage. I want to take advantage of the fact that I have these talents.”