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Posted January 27, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Sports

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By KIM SIM | Assistant Sports Editor | [url=http://www.DailyTrojan.com]http://www.DailyTrojan.com[/url]

Three games in five days, on a field 3,000 miles away, in a country that has been designated as off-limits to the average American.

Call it an experience of a lifetime for the USC baseball team, which left Friday morning for Cuba, where it will play three exhibition games.

“I’m really excited,” first baseman Joey Metropoulos said during one of the team’s last afternoon practices before departing for Havana.

The Trojans follow in the footsteps of Tennessee, which played three games in Havana in December, and the Washington, which made the trip in 2000.

Travel to Cuba has generally been limited. Because of the United States’ opposition to the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro, permission to visit the country is strict and granted mainly to educators, journalists, government employees, athletes and licensed humanitarian workers.

The team and its entourage of coaches, family members, alumni and fans were cleared by the U.S. Treasury Department, which issued the travel licenses.

A road trip abroad might be just what the USC baseball program needs to get back on track after a disappointing performance last year.

The Trojans ended the 2002 season with a 28-28 record and failed to make it into the NCAA tournament, ending a streak of 10 straight postseason appearances.

“It’s kind of a loose deal,” pitcher Bret Butler said about the actual playing of games, with the players not knowing beforehand the specific Cuban teams they will play. “Really, we want to go down there and bond.”

Bonding and becoming a closer unit is one of the Trojans’ goals for the five-day exhibition tour.

“It’s a road trip and the fact that we get to go to another country, it’s a good experience for us to go out as a team,” Metropoulos said. “To play good baseball against a good baseball program will get us ready for the season.”

The three games in Cuba marked the team’s first of the season.

“It’s definitely a great advantage to be able to get those games under our belt,” catcher Jeff Clement said.

The trip was planned in two days, culminating in what USC coach Mike Gillespie described as “a whirlwind two-day deal.”

Gillespie and other coordinators went to Havana in July to arrange the exhibition games.

“It was a real eye opener,” Gillespie said of that visit. “I think it’s a great opportunity for all of us ... to have an opportunity to interface with those people, see their community.”

Hitting coach Andy Nieto said he hoped the trip would remind the players to be grateful for what they have and that it would be remembered as more than a road trip.

“(I want them to) really appreciate how good they have it and maybe to see how much passion and responsibility for the game these people really have,” Nieto said. “We get caught up in different distractions and don’t appreciate the little things.”

Seeing and understanding a different culture is one of the main goals of the trip, which was touted as an educational exchange.

“I think it is a baseball opportunity but everyone can appreciate the fact that it is a good cultural opportunity, a good educational opportunity,” Gillespie said.

If nothing else, Gillespie said he hopes his team will gain “an appreciation of home.”

“I think they’ll come back really with a memory of a lifetime what they saw, what they experienced,” Gillespie said.

It is also about rediscovering the beauty of baseball, a simple game of leather and wood that is sometimes overshadowed by million-dollar ballparks, million-dollar contracts and celebrity players.

In Cuba, the average salary is about $14 a month. To buy a pair of shoes, it costs almost an entire year’s pay.

“Not only as players,” Nieto said of how the experience might change them. “As fans, probably as a country as well. Cuba is not always synonymous for cigars. (It’s) synonymous for baseball also.”

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