A group of aging ballplayers is heading to Boston and its western suburbs for a series of exhibition games this week against local teams of equally vintage softball players.
Nothing remarkable there? Wait, there is more. Much more.
The visitors are from Cuba and their roster reads like a who’s who of baseball legends from the Caribbean nation just 90 miles off Key West, Fla. Some of them played against Luis Tiant before his days with the Boston Red Sox. They coached Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, and even hotshot rookie shortstop Jose Iglesias, now making his mark with the Detroit Tigers after a torrid start at the plate this season for the Sox.
The Cuban all-star softball team, on its second trip to the United States, will face teams from the Eastern Massachusetts Senior Softball Association and Bay State Association in a series dubbed the Friendship Games.
The squads first played in 2009 in Havana, with several return trips since. Last year, the first time that the Cuban players were allowed to come here, the teams split four games.
‘It is just a unique experience to be hanging out with these Cuban national heroes.’
“The Cuban team won the first two, and we came back and won the next two,” said Mike Eizenberg, the tournament’s organizer, and a catcher, third baseman, and center fielder for the EMass squad.
“We are looking for at least three wins this year,’’ he said. “They are adding depth to their rosters this year. Legendary Cuban first baseman Pedro Chavez will be joining the team, and we are adding a few exceptional players ourselves. It is going to be quite a series.”
At 77, Chavez is the gentlemanly patriarch of Cuban baseball, having played in the old Cuban pro league and its postrevolution reinvention as the Serie Nacional. He was twice named MVP of the Cuban National Series (1963-64 and 1966-67).
“He was their first great player,” said Eizenberg, a 66-year-old Wellesley resident. “He played before the revolution, but he really came into his own in the transition. He is the face of Cuban baseball since the revolution. He and Fidel [Castro] know each other very well.”
Also on the visiting roster is Tony Gonzales, widely considered to be the greatest shortstop in Cuban baseball history, with three national championships in 10 years with the Industriales big-league team and 11 years on the Cuban national team; Reinaldo Linares, another fleet-footed member of the Industriales squad who was voted MVP of the Cuban National Series in 1967; Carlos Cepero, an infielder who played six years in the Cuban majors and later coached the national team at the 2004 Olympics and the 2009 World Baseball Classic; Armando Aguilar, a longtime player and member of the International Softball Hall of Fame who has coached both the Italian and Russian national women’s softball teams.
This year’s tournament marks the first time the Cuban Sports Ministry is sending an official team, according to Eizenberg. Among the 19 players granted permission to travel to the United States for games in Boston and Miami is Gerardo Hernandez, a former member of the Cuban National Assembly who has helped with arrangements during the Bay Staters’ trips to Cuba.
The Cuban players will be staying at their opponents’ homes. Gary Buxton, a 62-year-old insurance appraiser and first baseman, will be hosting four players at his home in Holliston.
“It is just a unique experience to be hanging out with these Cuban national heroes,” said Buxton, who stopped playing softball in his 30s to focus on raising his children, but now plays softball year-round. “If this were 30 years ago, I wouldn’t even be able to be on the same field as them. Now, I think we are pretty equal.”
Buxton, the self-described joker of the EMass bunch, has made more than a dozen trips to Havana since that first tournament in 2009. He plans to go back again in October.
“I fell in love with Cuba,” Buxton said. “The people I’ve met down there make you feel like part of their family. They come here and feel like part of our family, too. Baseball is a great sport that has brought us together.”
Gary Siegel, a 64-year-old third baseman for the EMass team, said that “over the last five years, softball has become secondary and the friendships have become primary.
“That is how this whole thing goes. On the field, we are competitive as hell and want to win, but after the game, we are all about fun. The relationships we have developed is what keeps me going back.”
Siegel, whose two daughters are away at college, will be hosting two players at his Needham home. He has gotten to know some of the players in the five years he has been traveling to Cuba, and, while wanting to avoid bringing politics into softball, he says Cuban life remains one of privation.
“Since 2009, their government has eased somewhat and it’s great,” Seigel said. “Then you bring them here? Just to watch their reactions, their jaws drop at what we take for granted. I took one guy into the supermarket. He couldn’t believe it — we had a whole aisle dedicated to dog and cat food. I was humbled.”
In recognition of the event’s fifth year, the players on both squads will wear No. 5 on their jerseys.
The Friendship Games start Sunday with a doubleheader on Boston Common. The opening ceremonies at 12:30 p.m. will include music, a presentation by the office of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, and a moment of silence for late Cuban boxing great Teofilo Stevenson, who had been honorary captain of the Cuban softball team and threw out the first pitch of their first meeting in Havana.
“Teofilo was my boyhood hero,” Eizenberg said. “I grew up in Brockton, home of boxing champions like Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler. One of my prize possessions is a boxing glove he signed for me over a dinner once.”
The Friendship Games move to the suburbs Monday, with a doubleheader at Cochituate Field in Wayland starting at 10 a.m., followed by two more games at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Fish and Game Field in Ashland.
Jose Martinez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.