Los Angeles Daily News
Esther Walker has not been home since she was 16. She hasn’t seen some 30 aunts and uncles in 25 years, and her teenage son, Julian, has never met most of his cousins.
All that is about to change with the help of baseball.
Julian Walker plays for Toluca Pony League, a team based in Toluca Lake, Calif., comprised of 13-year-olds. Last year, the team took a trip to Cooperstown, N.Y. Esther Walker decided the only way to top that experience was to expose the team to some of the best baseball in the world.
She chose Cuba, her birthplace.
And thus began the process known as “Toluca to Cuba,” a phrase that decorates T-shirts and caps. The team’s bus departs Saturday for Tijuana ó where their flight originates ó and the series of exhibition games against Cuban teams begins Monday in Havana.
But this trip is about much more than games.
“I’ve heard about my family for a long time,” said Julian, a first baseman. “My mom has told me a lot of stories. We’re going to have a big block party. I’m excited for that and the baseball.”
Walker’s relatives already have bought a pig, which they will roast as part of the celebration when the Pony Leaguers arrive.
Before that, the teens are getting a crash course in Cuban culture.
“They pretty much just pick sugar cane and play baseball,” Toluca pitcher John O’Hara said of the Cuban competition. “They’re really good. ... It’s going to be awesome.”
Travel from the U.S. to Cuba ó one of the few remaining communist countries in the world ó has been banned since 1962, and there are only a few ways Americans can get permission to make the trip. The Toluca team’s visit qualifies as a humanitarian endeavor for athletic purposes.
“It’s difficult to qualify for permits,” said travel agent Maricarmen Sicard, who with her husband, Frederico, accompanies about three groups to her homeland every year. “They don’t want Americans going as tourists.”
The Sicards accompanied a group of doctors to Cuba in May and will take a religious group in September. The Toluca players, each accompanied by at least one guardian, are the youngest group the Sicards have traveled with in seven years of business.
“Cuba is very open to having all kinds of sports events with Americans,” Maricarmen Sicard said. “It’s an opportunity and window for Cubans to see the world. They don’t have cable TV.”
Many also don’t have phones. When Esther Walker lived there, only one family on her block owned a phone, a luxury item to this day.
Walker and her family left legally when she was 4 years old, sponsored by relatives who lived in Tampa, Fla. She went back to visit when she was 16 but hasn’t returned since.
The Toluca contingent isn’t traveling lightly, and will arrive bearing gifts, school supplies and baseball equipment.
The team subsidized most of the trip’s cost ($1,500 per person) with fundraisers such as a car wash, bake sale, garage sale, golf tournament and barbecue, complete with Cuban sandwiches.