By Karen Billing
Rancho Santa Fe resident Richard Rovsek has traveled to Cuba numerous times but a recent trip felt like the first time after being able to see the country through the eyes of his grandson Blake, 11.
This was Rovsek’s 10th trip to Cuba, this time under a cultural license, which includes arts and sports. Rovsek and Blake traveled with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and had the opportunity to meet Cuban Olympians. Rancho Santa Fe residents Gary Bobileff and Corky Miser also joined them on the trip.
“Cubans themselves really love America, it’s a shame that we can’t have a decent relationship with a country that’s 90 miles off our shores,” Rovsek said.
Rovsek’s grandson Blake lives on Balboa Island in Newport Beach and is a fifth grade student at Lincoln Elementary. He enjoys traveling with his grandfather.
“Popi is so fun and he is not afraid to do anything and try everything he can,” Blake said.
While they were in Cuba, Rovsek and Blake met the Cuban fencing team and learned that they would be playing at the Olympic trials in Long Beach.
“It is a very young team,” Rovsek said. “Five of them were teenagers.”
In May, Rovsek and his grandson revisited with the Olympic team in Long Beach as they competed with the U.S., Canada, Mexico and others for a chance to compete at the London Olympics.
They did not win their most important match against the U.S., but now a committee will decide which teams will be selected to go.
Blake said the most interesting thing he saw in Cuba was the baseball game between the professional Matazanas Crocodillos and the Havana Metros teams, basically the equivalent to Cuba’s World Series.
Blake noted the game was very different from the U.S. because there were no advertisements, no hats or shirts or any memorabilia for sale, no concession stands, no soda or popcorn for sale. The only graphic in the stadium was a picture of Fidel Castro over the scoreboard.
The tickets to get to the playoff game were three pesos — all the seats were the same price.
The players warm up with dirty brown balls and while they play with clean balls once a player hits the ball into the stands, the fan throws it back.
One of the most amazing things Rovsek noticed was that the opposing teams shared a mitt at first base.
The main difference Blake said he noticed in Cuba was that they aren’t free to travel or leave and do not have freedom of speech.
“But the kids are very similar to kids everywhere, they just want to play,” Blake said.
Inspired by what he saw in Cuba, Blake has started asking his little league teammates to donate equipment that they have been outgrown to send back to Cuba for the children to have access to sports.
Rovsek hadn’t been back to Cuba in over a year and he was initially concerned that the changes he had heard happened would not be positive.
“I had some trepidation but when I got there I was pleasantly surprised,” Rovsek said. “Small businesses have started up and they’re moving modestly toward a free enterprise economy. It’s going to take awhile but even 18 months ago there were far fewer private restaurants and people working. It was wonderful to see that.”