KENTVILLE – A trip to Cuba in 2013 left a lasting impression on Dennis Woodworth.
Since then, the Bridgewater man has dedicated his time to leaving an impression of Cuba on as many young Canadian baseball players as he can.
For the past two years, Woodworth has been taking groups of young Canadian baseball players to Cuba as part of what he calls the Canada-Cuba Goodwill Tour.
Five players from the Kings County area – John Payne, Dyton Blackett, Doug Hassell, Nathan Rudderham and Kyle Woodworth – got to take part in the Cuban portion of the tour.
As part of the Canadian part of the 2015 tour, Woodworth brought a team of Cuban players from Matanzas province to Kentville on June 30 to play against a Nova Scotia all-star team.
Also on hand were former Major Leaguers Bill ‘’Spaceman” Lee, who played for both Boston and Montreal, and former Toronto Blue Jay Devon White.
Both accompanied the Canadian team to Cuba earlier this year as honorary coaches and are filling the same role on the Canadian portion of the tour.
Payne, Blackett, Hassell and Rudderham were also part of the June 30 event. They carried the Canadian and Cuban flags in the opening ceremonies, then watched the game from some of the best seats in the house.
Learning Cuban Culture
The Goodwill Tour is designed to expose young Canadian players to Cuba and its culture. The players get to see first hand how it differs from here in Canada and, in particular, Cuban baseball.
As well, the tour has a humanitarian upside.
“Over the past two years,” Woodworth said, “we’re provided Cuban youngsters with $100,000 in badly-needed baseball equipment and $10,000 in school supplies.”
In return, the young Canadian players receive “a great cultural experience.”
Cubans, he said, “love their baseball. They have good fields, but poor equipment. The only kids who get access to good equipment are part of the national program.”
The Goodwill Tour, he said, fills that gap.
“(We’re) focusing on the 98 per cent of the Cuban baseball program that isn’t getting the proper support,” he said.
For most of the Cuban players, this was their first visit to Canada.
Seeing Cuba First Hand
The trip to Cuba, and the things they experienced there, had a real impact on the local players.
Dyton Blackett, from Canning, is a member of the 15-U provincial team. He said the trip to Cuba was a great experience.
“We got to see a lot of different stuff we don’t get to see around here,” he added.
Blackett was impressed with the quality of players in Cuba. “They have good players down there, but they don’t get the kind of opportunities we have up here.”
John Payne, from Port Williams, is playing with the Nova Scotia Youth Selects 17-U provincial team this summer, the highest possible level for his age here in Nova Scotia. He found the tour an eye-opening experience in many ways.
“We got to see the fields they play on, and how things are different,” he said.
“They’re ahead of us in terms of players, but we have it all over them in terms of equipment and facilities.”
The tour is helping level the playing field.
Doug Hassell of Kentville tried out for the 15-U provincial team in 2014. Woodworth, he said, asked him to play for the Bridgewater bantam (AAA) Bulldogs, and also to be part of the tour.
“We were down there for a week,” he said. “It was an incredible experience.”
Nathan Rudderham, also of Kentville, played with Hassell on the Bridgewater bantam AAA team and was also picked by Woodworth to be part of the tour.
“The highlight was seeing how they live (in Cuba). I was impressed with all their fields, and how they keep them up,” Rudderham said.
“It’s incredible how they can do all they do with so little to work with.”
The team that represented Canada in the June 30 game included one local player, Keeshaun Such of Hantsport, who was in the starting lineup.
“No one person makes this happen,” Woodworth said in his opening remarks. “It’s a whole bunch of people working together,” often on short deadlines.
“This event,” he acknowledged, “has come together in less than a week.”
Woodworth is committed to continuing the tour. It has already been confirmed that a team from Acadia University will be among those travelling to Cuba in February 2016.
Woodworth has worked with players and coaches with the Acadia program, which was resurrected last fall after a hiatus of more than 10 years.
He was hoping to work with a university program on the Goodwill Tour, and Acadia not only fit the bill, but also expressed an interest in taking part.
Woodworth sees Acadia as “a unique school” with a growing baseball program.
“A lot of our young players (who have been part of the tour in past years) have expressed an interest in going there,” he added.