Like hockey is to Canada, so baseball is to Cuba, and this weekend the Trail AM Ford Orioles will enjoy a rare opportunity and go head-to-head against a team from Unión de Reyes, Cuba on Sunday at Butler Park.
“It’s not often that Trail has a team from Cuba come to play your local Trail baseball team,” said Orioles coach Chris Kissock. “It’s pretty exciting, it’s going to be exciting at the ball park and it’s a good opportunity for fans and kids to come watch and see what international baseball looks like.”
As a warm-up for the Grand Forks International Baseball Tournament (GFI), the Cuban team will play a two-game set against the Senior Men’s Orioles with a tilt at James Donaldson Park in Grand Forks on Saturday followed by a second match at Butler Park in Trail on Sunday.
“We don’t know what to expect right now,” said Kissock. “We don’t know what kind of ball we’re going to be facing against Cuba, but I keep telling my team that they’re going to be good. They’re not coming all this way to not win. So even in the exhibition games they’re going to be good.”
Unión de Reyes is a team from Matanzas province on the west coast of Cuba that first came to Canada as part of an exchange with the Vancouver Island Baseball Journey Society in 2015. It started with a donation of baseball gear 10 years ago by Chemainus resident Rob Dyke, and has since seen teams travel back and forth from the two distant islands.
This year, GFI tournament coordinator Stephen Boutang climbed aboard and invited the Cuban team to play in the annual Grand Forks event following their tour of Vancouver Island.
Cuba’s previous teams were made up of University players but this year’s squad is a little older, 19-30, in part due to the level of competition they’ll be facing at the GFI.
“This is the first time a club from Cuba has participated in the GFI,” said Boutang. “This year’s team, Union de Reyes, are their provincial champions … They are a tremendous draw for the fans. They play with an energy North Americans do not. And even though they are not the National team in Cuba, they are very good and will be very competitive at the GFI.”
For Kissock and the Orioles scheduling a game in Trail was key to participating, as the Orioles haven’t seen a lot of action at home, and are preparing to host the provincial men’s baseball championship Aug. 2-5.
The Cubans are immensely talented and have taken two-of-three exhibition games against teams from the West Coast League, an international college league made up of NCAA players.
The Orioles are a talented team in their own right, with former college players Cam Strachan, Joey Underwood, Jordon Kissock, Brian Mahon, Matt Larmour, Ross St. Jean, Kian Johnson and Scott Reinhold.
The Orioles also bolstered their rotation with a couple additions from Kelowna in Brock Chilton, Brett Fleming and Tyler Anderson.
Preparation for a relatively unknown entity can be tricky, but Kissock does have some experience. The Fruitvale native played for Team Canada and faced Cuba once at the 2011 Pan Am Games in which Canada won gold and twice at the World Cup of Baseball where Kissock and the 2011 Canadian team captured bronze.
His strategy for Trail this weekend: “Just keep playing, we’re practising twice a week and we just have to do our thing right. Whatever they throw at us, we have to handle it. I think our biggest thing is not giving them extra outs. We just have to play our game, make plays, and keep it simple.”
Boutang gleaned some inside information on Unión de Reyes and says Trail fans should expect an entertaining game and a Cuban team that plays with unbridled energy and passion.
“They yell instructions, encouragement, and criticism to each other constantly,” said Boutang. “They gesture a lot on the field, they celebrate their successes on the field. They play a different brand of baseball. They are mostly in their 20’s, almost all of them pitch, and most swing from the heels when at bat … they don’t get cheated.”
The AM Ford Orioles play Unión de Reyes on Saturday at 1 p.m. at James Donaldson Park in Grand Forks, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday at Butler Park in Trail.
Concession and a beer garden will be open for the game. Admission is only $5, 12-and-under is free.
The GFI goes June 25 to July 1 in Grand Forks, see more at grandforksbaseball.com.
The Cuban national team won gold in three of the five Olympic Games when baseball was an official sport, from 1992 to 2008, and silver in the other two. Cuba dominated the Baseball World Cup winning 25 gold, four silver and two bronze, missing the podium just once since its inception in 1938 and final tournament in 2011.