SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) — Little League has been hosting its World Series in Williamsport since 1947, yet it will be welcoming a new guest when the tournament starts Wednesday — Cuba.
Bayamo Little League beat Habana del Este Little League 6-2 to become the first Cuban team to qualify for the tournament back in March.
And the club from Bayamo sure is happy to have made it. Walking into a Little League-sponsored picnic Monday at a college across the Susquehanna River, the Cubans entered with a player draped in the Cuban flag, the only team to carry one to the event. They play their first game Wednesday against Japan.
“We are very proud to be here representing Cuba,” manager Vladimir Vargas said through a translator. “We have many teams that want to be here, and we are the ones. It is an awesome thing for us.”
It hasn’t been an easy feat to make it to Williamsport both on and off the field for the Cubans.
Little League expanded from 16 teams to 20 teams in 2022, part of which meant adding Puerto Rico, Panama and Cuba in a rotation where each region gets an automatic berth for a team in the tournament two out of every three years. In the third year, they compete to make the LLWS in their larger region. This year, the top Cuban team was a lock to make the tournament.
While Cold War tensions kept Cuba out of the LLWS for decades, when Little League officials reached out more recently, the Cubans responded by bringing about 700 teams under the banner of Little League.
Still, even with Havana and Miami just 228 miles apart, this is the first time the Cuban players and coaches have set foot on U.S. soil.
“We are very proud to be here,” Cuba’s team captain, Edgar Torrez, said through a translator. “This is a good experience for us. The best moment so far was just seeing the field that we are going to get to play on.”
The Cubans don’t have an easy task in their first appearance, taking on Japan, which was the last international team to win it all in 2017. The Japanese also have won the tournament five times since 2010, about the closest thing to a dynasty the LLWS has had in that time.
“We have seen a couple videos of their games, but Japan is always a tough team,” Vargas said. “We are going to play the way we did in Cuba — to win.”
On the field, Bayamo Little League finished its national tournament run with a record of 8-2, losing the first game of the best-of-three series in the second round and in the championship.
Bayamo Little League downed teams with their bats, scoring at least five runs in each of the three games in the championship series.
The Japanese squad the Cubans are playing isn’t the same Tokyo-based team to win it all in 2017, but it’ll be no easy match as Musashi Fuchu Little League went undefeated in its region.
Japan manager Toyo Hirooka has been to the Little League World Series before. He visited 10 years ago to cheer on his son, who was on the Japan team in 2013. That team was one of three Japanese clubs in the span of four years to win it all. It’s Hirooka’s first time back to the United States since.
“We just want to win here,” Hirooka said through a translator. “The same as before.”
The winner of the Cuba-Japan game moves on to face Mexico, which has an opening-round bye. The loser drops into the elimination bracket.
Mexico made it to the semifinals on the international side of the bracket last year but was beaten by Curacao, which in turn lost 13-3 to Hawaii in the final.
This year, that champion from Honolulu didn’t make it to Pennsylvania after it was knocked off by Northern California, and then Southern California took the West Region beating Northern California, 3-1.
The Cubans, meanwhile, will get some added motivation by even getting to play in front of their families in South Williamsport.
“I am even going to be playing better,” Edgar said. “I am happy for my family.”
NO MORE BUNK BEDS
Little League said it’s made a change to the sleeping arrangements this year after a player was injured in a fall from the top bunk of one of the beds in 2022.
Now there will be single, one-level beds for the players to sleep on, removing the bunk beds completely from the dormitories on the South Williamsport campus where the teams stay. Two teams, one from the United States and one from the international bracket, are generally paired in each dormitory so the players get to meet kids from another nation.
Spencer Ripchik is a journalism student at Penn State.
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