When Anthony Wilson met former professional Cuban baseball player Michel Rodriguez in 2016, Wilson knew that Rodriguez was more than a baseball coach. At the time, Rodriguez was teaching ball players at the now-shuttered Wheelhouse Academy of Baseball in Richmond. Among his students was Wilson’s oldest son, who plays for North Oakland/South Oakland Little League (NOLL/SOLL).

“Sometimes he can be a little bit modest,” Wilson said of Rodriguez. “He is a phenomenal hitting coach.” After training with Rodriguez, Wilson’s kids got so much better than other parents whose kids were in the same little league took notice. 

During his time at the academy in Richmond, clients would bombard Rodriguez with questions about Cuba, what it had been like to play professionally there, and what the “recipe” is that makes baseball players from the country so phenomenal. 

In 2016, with all of those questions in mind, he devised a plan to merge his big passions: the rich history and cultural traditions of his native country and baseball.

The idea was to bring a group of youth players from the academy to visit Cuba during spring break, give them a chance to play ball with Cuban youth, make new friends, and learn more about the Caribbean island.

The following year, after raising funds, Rodriguez traveled to the island with 17 kids and their families. Among them were Wilson and his son.

“It was a life-altering experience not only for me but for the kids,” Wilson said. “You could see how much it impacted them. My son even wrote about it in his college essays.”

Oakland Little League
Coach and former baseball player Michel Rodriguez at a recent practice with the little leaguers. Credit: David Meza
Oakland Little League
Little leaguers at a weekend practice. Credit: David Meza

The trips to Cuba continued, and in 2019, Rodriguez took over the baseball academy in Richmond. He was forced to move the academy online after the pandemic started in 2020, and the facility was eventually shuttered. Not long thereafter, Rodriguez was able to open a new training facility, 365 Academy of Baseball and Softball, in San Rafael.

In early 2020, Wilson approached Rodriguez to see if he’d be interested in helping to organize another trip to Cuba with youth and families at NOLL/SOLL. But as the pandemic worsened, their dream was put on the back burner.

Wilson kept the idea in mind and brought it up with Rodriguez again last summer, and Rodriguez—who now coaches at the little league—began having conversations with the parents of young players in the league to gauge interest.

Initially, Wilson envisioned recruiting 15 kids for the trip to Cuba. The final number ended up being 26—a racially and culturally diverse mix of kids between the ages of 13 and 14, almost all of whom attend Oakland schools.

“We have families that have traveled before, and for other kids, this is their first passport and first time traveling out of the country,” Wilson said.

Once it was determined how many people would be making the trip—77 altogether, including parents and coaches—the group began fundraising in October to cover 100% of the players’ expenses. Their efforts have included silent auctions, a GoFundMe campaign, and attracting local sponsors like Café Santana in the Laurel District, Oaklandish (which also donated uniforms for the players), Taps and Takeout, Grand Copy, East Bay Ball Summer Camp, Hillside View Orthodontics, and others. The group has raised over $50,000 so far, with a goal of reaching $91,000. 

Oakland Little League
Oaklandish, one of the fundraising sponsors, provided the uniform for the team. Credit: David Meza
Oakland Little League
26 little leaguers will be traveling to Cuba in April. Credit: David Meza

The group will leave for Cuba on April 5 and return on April 10. In addition to baseball activities, the itinerary includes visits to historic places and attractions like Havana’s colonial plazas, the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress, where an 18th-century cannon is fired every day at 9 p.m., and Santa Maria Del Mar beach. 

“My mission is to continue to do this, these trips to Cuba, because that’s my passion,” Rodriguez said. “That’s my long-term vision.”

For their young players, both Rodriguez and Wilson say the importance of the trip goes beyond baseball; they saw how the pandemic hindered children’s social skills.

“It was tough on these kids,” Wilson said. “So getting back outside, getting them back in groups, is good for their development.”

The group will continue to fundraise even after April 5, so they can get ahead of what Rodriguez hopes will be a yearly trip with NOLL/SOLL and other little leagues around the Bay Area for this “baseball without borders cultural exchange.” 

“Cuba is where I grew up, and I want the kids to learn from it,” Rodriguez said. “I want the kids and their parents to experience everything from the inside out.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.