Rattlers to be first junior team to visit Castro.
Sometime late on Saturday night, a plane will be landing in Cuba carrying with it historic significance. On it will be 58 Americans, which is unusual enough for a country that has been at odds with the United States for most of the 20th century. And among the company will be several Berkeley representatives.
The Oakland Rattlers AAU baseball team will be the first high-school-age team to tour the last bastion of communism since the U.S. embargo was enacted in the early 1960s. The 16-and-under team has three players who also play for Berkeley High: Cole Stipovich, Andre Sternberg and Ryan Nelson.
Stipovich, who has played for Rattlers’ head coach Eddie Abrams for two years, was one of the first kids Abrams recruited for his new team from his old team, the Oakland Oaks.
“He told us he was going to make a new team with us and a bunch of other players, Stipovich said. “The trip came along after that, so I was one of the first to know about it, and I got pretty excited.”
The Rattlers were chosen mostly due to Abrams’ reputation for fielding highly successful teams, but also because he puts together racially diverse squads.
“It’s very important to the Cubans that the team not be lily-white,” assistant coach Jim Stipovich said. “When we play in national tournaments, so many of the teams don’t have any minorities. It’s almost shameful.”
The team will be accompanied by a crew from Fox Sports World, which will be creating a documentary on the unique trip.
The trip will be one week long, with the first day dedicated to sightseeing in Havana. The team will play doubleheaders against the Cuban junior Olympic team on Monday and Tuesday, then visit the National Sports School in Havana on Wednesday. Thursday will bring another doubleheader, but the two teams will mix and play together. The final day of the trip will consist of a dinner with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, himself a former ballplayer.
According the elder Stipovich, the Rattlers are set on sweeping the two formal doubleheaders.
“We want to show them what we’ve got,” he said. “But the Cubans are going to be desperate to win on their own turf, in front of their fans. All the pressure will be on them.”