When Grand Valley State head baseball coach Steve Lyon received the opportunity for his team to take a school-sponsored international trip, he knew the place he wanted to take them somewhere that shared a passion for America's national pastime -- Cuba.

The island nation of Cuba sits just 70 miles south of the United States, but is a world away for most Americans because of tense governmental relations over the last 50 years. Since the early 1960s, the U.S. has enforced economic sanctions on Cuba, while diplomatic relations between the two nations have been virtually non-existent, so Lyon knew there would be a lot more to work out than booking plane tickets and hotel rooms when the school approved the trip in May 2009.

"I thought because of the Communist regime in Cuba and their passion for the game of baseball that it would be a great combination for our guys to experience something like that," Lyon said.

"I thought it was initially a joke -- I really didn't believe it," senior catcher Jared Cowan said. "But as time passed, the coaches started talking like it was really going to happen."

To make the trip a reality, GVSU would have to apply for special licenses to travel to Cuba, so Lyon and Athletic Director Tim Selgo sought advice from First Hand Aid, a humanitarian group in Grand Rapids that delivers much-needed medical supplies to Cuba three or four times a year.

We went down there [to Cuba] with an open mind and didn't really know what to expect.
-- GVSU head coach Steve Lyons

"We ran into a lot of hurdles and roadblocks because of the embargo between the two countries, but it eventually worked out and our license applications to both governments were approved and in January we finally took the trip," Lyon said.

First Hand Aid also provided Lyon with the name a Cuban-American that had served as a liaison between the Cuban teams and the U.S. for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The consultant traveled between the two countries, planning the trip for GVSU and talking to Cuban baseball officials to set up the three-game exhibition series in Havana with an all-star team from different provinces around the Caribbean nation.

After several months planning and a half-dozen indoor practices in Grand Rapids during winter break, the Lakers arrived in Cuba on Jan. 3 for a six-day, once-in-a-lifetime journey.

"We went down there with an open mind and didn't really know what to expect," Lyon said. "It is a beautiful country and we stayed in a very nice place that is close to the ocean.

"When we got a chance to meet and interact with the people, my impression was they're great. They're very welcoming. We didn't know what type of reception we might have with the problems between the two governments, but it was great. The thing I came away with is that people are people no matter where you go and the passion for baseball was evident."

GVSU was the first American collegiate baseball team to travel to Cuba for exhibition games since the Alabama made the trip to Havana in 2008. The Lakers return 13 seniors from a team that finished a 52-5 record and advanced to the Division II World Series in 2011.

The Cuban squad, however, was a formidable opponent and swept the Lakers in the series, including a 4-3 extra-inning victory in the first contest.

"They were talented and we competed very well with them even though we ended losing all three games," Lyon said. "I was glad to see they developed a very competitive team for us to play and they certainly took it very seriously."

The second game was played at Latin American Stadium -- Cuba's version of Yankee Stadium -- where the Havana Industriales play.

"Everyone we ran into was very knowledgeable about baseball and excited about getting a chance to see a team from the United States play," Lyon said. "The crowds we had at the exhibition games were non-partisan - the biggest thing they did was hoot on the umpires whether the call was against or for their team. They wanted good baseball. I think our guys got a kick out of that."

The Grand Valley State players donated baseball equipment to the local youth.
GVSU Athletics

"We couldn't speak the language with everyone but baseball was the way we communicated," Cowan said. "We'd be walking around and people would put their hands together like they were gripping a bat and say, 'baseball, baseball?' That was pretty cool to see."

The Cubans flew the American flag and played the national anthem for the games -- something the Laker players did not expect.

"For the third game they had forgotten the CD for our national anthem, so they asked us to sing it before the game," Cowan. "We didn't hit the keys as well as real singers, but it was pretty cool to do."

In addition to baseball, the Lakers enjoyed their time meeting people and visiting sites around Havana with an interpreter and Cuban officials in tow. The one disappointment was probably during a dinner between the two teams where the officials, coaches and players were to sit together.

"I thought it would have been the highlight of the trip, but Cuba cancelled their players," Lyon said. "I think that was the only thing we ran into where they didn't want a lot interaction between our players and their players. It is a poor country. Our guys certainly have different lives in the States, and maybe they didn't want their players to find out about our guys having all of these so-called luxuries."

Lyon and his players agreed on the highlight of the trip. They had collected athletic equipment to distribute to youth groups in Havana. Working First Hand Aid, the team delivered the equipment as well as medical supplies during one day of the trip.

"The best part was going to the church and seeing the youth groups play with broken, taped-up bats and fielding balls without gloves … we stopped there and unloaded the rest of our equipment that we had brought to donate," Cowan said.

"I was kind of scared to go down there after all I had heard about Cuba, but it was a great opportunity that the University gave us to go there," senior outfielder Steve Anderson said. "It was a great experience for all of us."

GVSU is ranked No. 4 in the ABCA/Collegiate Baseball Preseason Poll, and opens the season on Feb. 27 at Bellarmine.