The University of Tampa's baseball team formed a sea of red polos at Tampa International Airport Sunday as the players prepared for a weeklong trip to Cuba.
The trip will see them take on the Industriales Blue Lions, Mayabeque Hurricanes and Artemisa Hunters in three exhibition games. Mayabeque and Artemisa are among the country's best baseball teams.
"It's just a privilege and it's a blessing," said pitcher Tyler York, 21. "I think we all feel honored to have the chance to play a national team."
As pitcher Jimmy Hodgskin waited with his parents at the counter, his glove out, he said the storied tradition of Cuban baseball made him a little nervous.
"I'm expecting a pro team, pretty much," said Hodgskin, 22.
Though baseball is taking them to Cuba, the trip was designed as a cultural exchange. About 50 people, including parents, coaches and a few visitors who helped organize the trip, left on a 2 p.m. flight to Havana on Sunday.
The team will travel on cultural literacy and international education licenses through the organization People to People. Representatives from the World Trade Center of Tampa, the UT Athletic Department and the UT Office of International Programs also helped plan the trip, believed to be the first of its kind for a Florida team.
From their home base in Havana, players will visit the Ernest Hemingway House, eat at local restaurants and meet with college-aged Cubans. Travel to Cuba remains somewhat restricted for Americans, and many players and parents said they recognized it as a rare opportunity.
Tampa City Councilman Charlie Miranda, who traveled to Cuba as a youngster to play baseball, will accompany the Spartans.
"It's about playing the ball, it's about spreading culture and the exchange," Miranda said.
Coach Joe Urso hopes that exchange will include a chance to give back to needy kids.
Along with their suitcases and gym bags, the team hauled uniforms, bats, gloves, and other gear donated by the New York Yankees and the Palma Ceia Little League.
And when they leave Cuba on Saturday, Urso will ask players to return home without their shoes and gloves. The Spartans will come back to new gear, but they hope leaving something behind will help spread goodwill — no matter what happens on the field.
"We're going to do this first class," Urso said, "and make sure the people out there are going to end up with equipment that's really good."
Claire Wiseman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman on Twitter.