Oak Park Windmills: Windmills History

Windmills Visit Cuba

Diamond Girls - Windmills softball team takes their game to Cuba

By BILL DWYER - Wednesday Journal March 17, 2004

Fifteen years ago this February, Marc Blesoff and a small group of Oak Park and River Forest fathers started the Windmills girls softball team in order to provide their daughters a chance to play softball at the highest level possible. Over the intervening period, the Windmills organization has continually raised the bar for both its players and coaches. Though Blesoff and his parental cohorts couldn’t have known it back in 1989, softball would take them and their daughters to places they could only have dreamed of.

Five weeks ago, after a year of planning, fundraising, preparation and ever-intensifying anticipation, the Windmills took that program to a new plateau, sending 11 girls to Havana, Cuba for three games with the Cuban national softball team.

One of the pleasures of competitive girl’s softball is the opportunity to travel and have adventures in interesting places. Numerous individual Windmill players have traveled to places like Holland and France. And various teams in different age groups routinely make the trek to softball centers in Colorado, California, Texas and elsewhere.

But even for an organization that has gotten as used to wide ranging travel as the Windmills, the Cuba trip stands part. Like the softball club itself, the Cuba experience proved to be something that took on a life of its own.

There were a number of unknowns as the Windmills set out for Havana, including personal safety, quality of competition, friendliness of the Cuban people, quality of the hotel, and a host of other possible glitches. While the experience unfolded in myriad ways, all of them, most agreed, were positive.

"It just went so well," Blesoff said. "Everything I hoped would happen [pretty much happened]."

 

The Windmills’ six day stay included three weekend games with Team Cuba, book ended by socializing, sightseeing and visits to such places as a cigar factory, Cojimar, the house where ex-patriot Oak Parker Ernest Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, and a visit to part of the island nation’s 3,500 miles of seashore.

After a long travel day that saw the group rise well before dawn on Wednesday, Feb. 11 for their flight to Miami, the team arrived that evening in Havana. Thursday they began acclimating to their new surroundings.

"The first day we were there was so strange," said Kealan Waldron, a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School. "But we embraced it and took total advantage of it."

Helping the girls embrace the Cuba experience was Blesoff’s daughter Jamine, an original Windmill from 1989, who is fluent in the language. Now 25 and working in Guatemala, Jamine traveled to Cuba to help facilitate the program there, and act as the unofficial interpreter and cultural guide along with the team’s professional tour guide, Jorge.

"Jamine’s help was invaluable with organization and bridge building," said coach Ray Ostler. "Without her, I don’t know if we’d have broken the ice as quickly."

Of course, ice melts fast in Cuba, especially when the two sides share a common passion for a sport. Still, the girls routinely sought Jamine out as they made new friends with the players on the Cuban national team at their first game.

"I thought I knew a lot more Spanish than I did," said 15-year old Katie O’Meara, sheepishly, speaking for several of the girls.

• Friday, Feb. 13: Estadio Rafeal Contes, Havana. Eleanor Comiskey strikes out 11 during a three-hitter as the Windmills tie Team Cuba 4-4 in seven innings. Kealan Waldron injures herself running to first on an RBI single. Replacement Lauren Gonzalez’s clutch seventh inning hit ties the game.

Recalling their first encounter with the older Cuban national team, the girls joked about their anxiety over how the Cubans would respond to their foreign guests.

"When we walked up to them, we didn’t know what to expect," said Aly Euler, 15.

"I was afraid it would be awkward, or we would be really different," admitted Maura Waldron, 14. There were, in fact, many differences, but both Americans and Cubans gravitated easily to the natural bonds between them and quickly developed a great rapport.

The highlight of the afternoon was an exchange of gifts between Windmill and Team Cuba players before the game. The Windmill players gave their counterparts "USA" pins, while the Cubans gave their guests flowers. It was the start of what grew to be the heart of the Windmill’s experience in Cuba.

"When the girls exchanged gifts and started hanging out with the Cuban players after the first game, they were having fun," said Blesoff. "They were laughing and talking about music and talking about dancing."

During that first game, which ended in 4-4 tie, Blesoff and coaches John Allen and Ostler were able to observe the Cuban’s strengths and weaknesses. Actually, weakness. Strong, fast and athletic, the only real deficit the coaches found in their opponents’ game was pitching.

"They can run, throw and hit," said Ostler. "I thought we were going to get demolished by a bigger, stronger, faster team."

But "they really have no idea," about pitching, he added. "[They have] basically one pitch." Ostler and Allen later arranged to put on a 90-minute pitching clinic for the Cuban team.

"They were really excited," recalled Ostler, who brought along Eleanor Comiskey and Mallory Sisk to demonstrate his points. "They wanted to know everything about how our pitchers got to be that good."

Besides weak pitching technique, the Cubans were hampered by a serious lack of proper equipment. "We came out in our spiffy 'Windmills USA’ uniforms, and they came out in [hand-me-downs]," said Kealan.

That wasn’t all the Cubans lacked materially. Throughout the weekend the Cuban players, who wore the same clothes all three days, frequently came over to the American’s dugout to ask for bandages. The reason, said 17-year old Erika Rosenwinkel, is that the Cubans, besides not having any bandages, were playing without pads or sliding shorts, and were cutting up their knees and thighs on the base paths.

"I think everyone wanted to give them everything we had," said Rosenwinkel to nodding agreement from her teammates.

The Cuban stadia the teams played in also reflected the depressed Cuban economy. After the first game on Friday, the teams were moved to one of the best facilities on the island. But with its worn, faded appearance, rusty fencing and a large hole in the backstop, the stadium was inferior to any field the Windmills had ever played on. The bases, said several girls with amazement, were made of sponge.

Allen offers an example of the utterly pervasive poverty gripping Cuba. "When you walk around downtown Havana, there’s no trash receptacles anywhere," he said. "Because there’s nothing for people to buy, so there’s no trash."




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