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Burbank's Travieso organizes softball team’s historic trip to Cuba

Burbank's Travieso organizes softball team’s historic trip to Cuba
Burbank resident Lilly Travieso, left, and the Burbank-based Firecrackers Media City travel softball team will travel to Cuba from July 23-28. (File Photo)

Manny Travieso had an idea, and some might say a wild one at that.

Travieso, a former Burbank Little League coach who currently coaches the Burbank-based Firecrackers Media City travel softball team, wanted to organize a multicultural-exchange venture in another country with his team of high school-age players.

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With Cuban roots, Travieso envisioned taking a team to the Communist island nation in a trip that would include softball competition along with cultural interaction between players.

However, there was a big drawback. According to the U.S. State Department in an update on its website June 16, "Tourist travel to Cuba remains prohibited."

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"I knew that it was going to be tough with the travel restrictions and the tightening of things from President Trump recently," said Travieso, 42. "But I came up with the idea and I thought it would be so beneficial on both sides and I started to work on it and I was willing to do anything I could to make it happen."

With the help of some contacts within Major League Baseball, Travieso was able to open up a dialog with Cuba's governing body of sports, Cuba Deportes. Through a great deal of exchange with U.S. and Cuban organizations and officials, the coach finally received good news that he and his team would be cleared to travel and play in Cuba.

The Firecrackers Media City, which includes Burbank resident Lillyanna Travieso, Manny's daughter, will travel to Cuba from July 23-28.

"Through those contacts, they put me in contact with the right people and we got invited to come by the Cuba Deportes," Manny Travieso said. "It's pretty amazing and exciting that we will have the chance to do this. It's not easy to be able to travel to Cuba and not many people, let alone teams, get a chance like this. ... Really, we are making history."

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According to information on the United States Embassy in Cuba website, there are strict guidelines on who can travel to the country: "Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute. However, the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control has issued general licenses for 12 categories of travel. ... The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba are: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions."

"It's really still an embargo and it's tough now to get to go there," Travieso said. "We have about 30 people going on the trip, including 10 players. But under the permit for us to go, every single person who travels with us must have a purpose and they can't just go along for a vacation. Everyone who is with us who is not a player has a job. We have a few interrupters, we have a few that will be our medical personnel, we have coaches and we have equipment managers. Even my younger daughter will be our bat girl."

Along with players from California, the Firecrackers squad includes athletes from Arizona, Washington, and Iowa. The team will have a practice, likely at McCambridge Park July 22, before departing the next day from LAX.

"When my dad first came up with the idea and he told me about it, I thought it was amazing, but I didn't know if he was going to be able to do it," Lillyanna Travieso said. "But he just fought so hard to make it happen and he talked to so many people just to give us this opportunity.

"It is such an amazing opportunity to be able to do this. This is something I would have never thought that I would be able to do. With the culture that we will be able to experience and the softball with it, it's really a dream come true."

In Cuba, the Firecrackers will play exhibition games against the Cuban Junior Olympic Team as well as the National Olympic Team.

"I'm looking forward to playing the Cuban National Team," coach Travieso said. "This team will be the same team that could play in the 2020 Olympics. It's a unique opportunity to say you played against this team and you played them in Cuba.

"None of the girls we will play against and hang out with from Cuba will speak any English, but I believe our girls will have the same experience. They will be able to communicate and understand each other because of the universal softball language. Also, the experience these Firecracker girls will have from the standpoint of culture and the new friendships they will have when it's all said and done, will be priceless."

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For the players, they are counting down the days until they leave for the trip.

"I am excited to go to Cuba to play the game I love," said Haley Gatica of Hagberg, Iowa. "It is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I am beyond blessed to have this opportunity. What makes it super cool is that most people can't travel to Cuba and that Cuba is not very modernized so it will be like going back in time, which will be exciting to see.

"I have traveled to several countries as well, such as my dad's home country Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica. I was lucky enough to be invited to play softball in Argentina where I got to play with, and against, their national softball team which was also a very cool experience. It will also be cool to play in an atmosphere that is filled with my culture that I may not see in Iowa."

Travieso, who was born in Puerto Rico, and his family fled Cuba after the communist takeover He has heard stories about the country and is excited to experience the culture and see the sites first hand.

"I really feel lucky to be able to go back to where my grandparents were born and where my father was born and really where my roots are from," Travieso said. "It is a great opportunity for me and I am so excited to be going to Cuba. It actually makes the hair on my arms stand up when I think about it."

Twitter: @jefftsports

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