TAMPA — For the University of Tampa baseball team, a weeklong trip to Cuba was more about cultural exchange than competition on the field of play.
But don't be fooled — it's nice to win, too.
The 2013 NCAA Division II champion UT squad won all three games it played against tough Cuban teams and returned home Sunday at Tampa International Airport to a crowd of cheering family and supporters. UT is one of just a few college baseball teams to make the trip, and perhaps the first from Florida.
Spartans head coach Joe Urso said the trip helped his team bond and prepare for the opening of its season next month. The team donated baseball gear — gloves, balls, shoes and even caps — as a measure of goodwill on an island where equipment shortages are endemic.
"It just made us all feel pretty good," Urso said. "It was a great experience. The people in Cuba were opening their arms to my players. The dialogue between the two groups was really unique."
UT beat Las Habana, a team affiliated with the Industriales Blue Lions, by a 2-1 score on Wednesday; hammered the Artemisa Cazadores (Hunters) 13-5 on Friday; and ended the trip with an 8-6 win over the Mayabeque Huracanes (Hurricanes) on Saturday.
The Cuban teams were composed of players 23 years old and younger in a professional Cuban national league. Not that anybody checked birth certificates.
"They were suppose to be 23 and under," Urso said, "but some of these guys looked like men" in their upper 20s.
The team traveled on a cultural literacy and international education license through the organization People to People. The trip is sponsored through the World Trade Center of Tampa, the UT Athletic Department and the UT Office of International Programs.
The trip, which included 50 people — 36 players and five or six coaches were in the group — wasn't just about baseball. Players got to do a little sight-seeing and spoke to everyday Cubans, including student groups, artists and children.
Travel to Cuba is restricted under the U.S. economic embargo. But such cultural exchanges have been allowed since 2011.
One highlight for the Spartan players was visiting "the hot corner" in Havana, a spot in a city park where retired Cuban ballplayers gather each day to talk baseball and reminisce.
"It was an amazing trip," said UT infielder Giovanny Alfonzo, 21. "They play with so much passion and heart. They love the game and smile and laugh when they play. But they're intense, too."
Spartans infielder Quinn Pippin, 23, said the home fans started to make their displeasure known during the final game against the Hurricanes as the prospect of an American sweep emerged.
One thing ballplayers of different cultures share is an aversion to losing.
The fans "didn't like it very much," Pippin said. "They were really into the game, and they were really upset. But after the game, everybody was very nice."
"These exchanges are important because the ties of friendship … help a lot. Other teams have come and fraternized with other players from Cuba, and it builds up," Jose Luis Boss, manager of the Habana team, told the Associated Press.
"Tomorrow others may come, and the day after that one of them may become president," Boss added. "And one day they may be the ones who fix what has happened for years between these governments."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]