TAMPA — In a trip with few precedents, the University of Tampa's defending national champion baseball team heads Sunday to Cuba to play four exhibition games in that baseball-crazy country.
The Spartans will be in Cuba for a cultural exchange until Jan. 19. They'll tour Colonial Havana, meet local kids, eat at the home-based restaurants known as paladares — and play at least two of Cuba's best baseball teams.
"An amazing cultural opportunity," UT head coach Joe Urso said. "The coaching staff, the players are thrilled right now. This is trip of a lifetime."
UT is one of a handful of U.S. college baseball teams — and is believed to be the only one from Florida — to travel to Cuba to play. The Spartans' opponents there include the Industriales Blue Lions, Mayabeque Hurricanes and Artemisa Hunters.
"What we've seen is two of the games are against teams" — Mayabeque and Artemisa — "in the main league down there, what would be the major league," Urso said. "I'm sure it's going to be very, very high-level baseball."
By chance, the Spartans likely will have some classmates and hometown fans rooting for them. A group of UT students is studying in Cuba for 10 days as part of a government and world affairs honors class, and they plan to attend one of the games.
The team is traveling 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 has been two years in the making, said Stephen Michelini, managing director of the nonprofit World Trade Center of Tampa, which works to foster international trade.
It started with conversations involving Michelini, Urso, Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda and Bill Hauf, whose company, Island Travel & Tours, flies to Cuba from Tampa International Airport.
Getting approvals took many discussions over months with Cuban interior ministry and sports commission officials. The Cuban government's formal invitation to UT came Dec. 13. The next day, when Michelini asked UT athletics officials when they wanted to play, he learned that the Spartans had to be back by Jan. 20 because the university's spring semester starts Jan. 21.
That left an unusually small window in which to finalize the schedule and finance the trip, and it had organizers working to 11 p.m. every night for weeks.
But Michelini says it's worth it. In the past several years, an increasing number of business, civic and cultural groups have gone on similar exchanges, but he said none represent the spirit of Tampa the way UT's players will.
"You can take business groups down there and they can do their thing and that's good," he said. "That builds relationships. But youth is a whole different program. I think it has a greater long-term positive effect."
About 50 people are going — 36 players, five or six coaches plus parents and other members of the community. Depending on where they stay, what they do and their personal expenses, trip costs will run about $2,500 to $3,200 per person, Michelini said. The university, students, their parents and private donors are paying for the trip.
Michelini said such a trip could be made only by a private university like the University of Tampa because Florida law restricts public universities from paying for travel to Cuba.
The Spartans, who play their first game the middle of next week, also will meet and train with the Cuban Baseball Team and Matanzas Baseball Team.
The trip follows the Spartans capturing the university's sixth NCAA Division II baseball championship in June.
Miranda, who three years ago worked to arrange a trip for Tampa ballplayers in their mid- to late 60s, said Cubans are mad for the game.
"I've seen kids in Cuba take a branch off a tree and play with a rock," he said. "It reminds me of when we were kids in Ybor City."
His own experience playing ball in Cuba goes back to 1954. At age 13, he and former major league manager Tony La Russa were co-captains on an Ybor City Optimist Club youth all-star team that played in Cuba.
Miranda, 73, has never forgotten the roar of the Havana crowds or what it was like to pitch to the big, powerful Cuban hitters, several of whom were already growing mustaches.
In the same way, he thinks the trip will stay with the UT players forever.
"Baseball is a way of communicating throughout Latin America and the United States," he said. "I think it's a great opportunity for these young individuals to go, see, look and feel what it is that's been missing between these two countries for a long time. I'm talking about baseball."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow him on Twitter @Danielson_Times.