Schaumburg baseball coach visits Cuba for political reconnection

By George Castle For Chronicle Media
Pete Caliendo (right in pic) with Tony Castro, Fidel's youngest child and VP of the Cuban Baseball Federation.

Pete Caliendo (right in pic) with Tony Castro, Fidel’s youngest child and VP of the Cuban Baseball Federation.

Connections count heavily whether in hyper-political Cook County or the command-and-control communist bureaucracy of Cuba.

Thus Schaumburg’s Pete Caliendo has the right talent. He is a “wired” guy. In the wake of a Tampa Bay Rays-Cuban National Team game watched by two presidents, the longtime amateur coach is pulling off a lower-profile — but just as important — re-connection between the United States and Cuba through baseball.

Experienced in coaching literally around the world, Caliendo is taking a team of 16 high school and college players for a six-day, projected eight-game trip to Cuba beginning July 27. The goal is not just the final results on the scoreboard, but education and understanding for both sides in countries that are close neighbors geographically, but for 56 years light-years apart philosophically.

Caliendo is taking full advantage of relationships with the likes of Higinio Velez, president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, and Tony Castro, Fidel Castro’s youngest son and vice president of the baseball federation. He has already made one trip to Cuba, to watch Olympic trials in 2007, but has had other opportunities to build his connections.

“I worked with many of the officials in Cuba, and became friends with them,” Caliendo said. “I got their approval to come.

“I’ve been talking [in person] with the Cubans for awhile, in other countries. I’ve seen them in Japan and Taiwan. I’d make some calls [to Cuba]. Some people I can get emails to. Some bounce back, some go through.”

Castro, as one may figure, has up-to-date on-line service. Caliendo communicates via email and Facebook with the scion of Cuba’s First Family, who is an advocate of building bridges through baseball.

“It’s not completely open, 100 percent,” Caliendo said. “It’s not like they said to bring all the teams you can. They have to trust people.”

Carefully calibrating his trip, Caliendo put on hold the concept of also bringing a Little League-age team to limit the traveling party to one team comprised of high school juniors and seniors, and college freshmen and sophomores.”

He has openings for up to six more players after choosing his first 12. Any talented player can apply with the cutoff date late April for the processing of visas and other travel information.

“They’ve got to be quality kids student-wise,” Caliendo said. “Their background is important. How do they train? It’s the image of the U.S. on these kids. We don’t want kids who are swearing or throwing bats.”

Pete  Caliendo (from right), Tony La Russa and Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, a Chicago Northwest Side native.

Pete Caliendo (from right), Tony La Russa and Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, a Chicago Northwest Side native.

Caliendo can be contacted at or at P.O. Box 68103 in Schaumburg, IL 60169. He is serving as general manager of the trip. Former Lockport High School baseball coach Jim Hall will be coach.

Cost of the trip is $2,850 per person, with visa, transportation and meals at the Havana hotel included. If two or more members from a family go, the cost drops to $2,650 per person. Attendees must get to Miami on July 26 to make the charter flight to Havana on July 27.

Parents are welcome to come. Accommodations will be two to a room in the Havana hotel, either family members or two players each.

The plan is to combine games in various parts of the Havana region with sightseeing, sampling the food and meeting Cuban residents. Caliendo hopes to have one day where he plays two games.

He also wants his teams and their local opponents to practice together.

“Most [young Cubans] never met an American,” Caliendo said. “This will be a great opportunity for players and coaches. It will be a great exchange of education. We will see each other’s [styles of] games.

“I want our kids to see how they play with basically nothing — any kind of bat, any kind of glove, any kind of field. But [the players will see] how athletic they are. How they play the game with joy and fun and smiles. Also how hard they play the game. How aggressive they are. They just come right at you.”

The baseball junket will no doubt be the highlight of Caliendo’s 33-year coaching career that began as a teenager in his native Elmwood Park and grew to a top administrator in USA Baseball. He also worked for the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame when it was headquartered in Arlington Heights. He has made some 20 barnstorming trips to the Dominican Republic, now a lodestone of talent for major-league organizations.

Cuba is projected to finally open up for above-board acquisition of the country’s baseball talent instead of players like the White Sox’s Jose Abreu fleeing as refugees. At that time, Caliendo expects Cuba to be as bountiful a talent source as the Dominican Republic.

“This will be one of the biggest markets for professional baseball,” he said.

The baseball commissars simply don’t want savvy Americans like Caliendo to jump the gun in recruiting. That’s why he’s playing it cool with his trip to the tropics in the heat of summer. As Jodie Foster was advised by alien David Morse in the movie “Contact:” “Baby steps.”




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