LA VIDA VOICES: TOMMY GOODMAN OF THE CARIBBEAN EDUCATIONAL AND BASEBALL FOUNDATION
I’m fortunate. I get to live and breathe at the intersection of my passions – baseball, history and culture. Unsurprisingly, I find myself drawn to people whose life Venn diagrams intersect with mine. A perfect example of this occurred at last year’s MLB All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., where I had the pleasure to connect with Tommy Goodman, the Caribbean Educational & Baseball Foundation’s (CEBF) executive director.
What intrigued me about Tommy’s work was how CEBF was intentionally using baseball to improve relations between Cuba and US on a person-to-person, human level in addition to diplomacy at the highest levels of government. This meant giving away bats and gloves as well as putting together programming that allows Americans and Cubans to learn from each other’s cultures.
Tommy helped bring the terrific artistry of Cuban artist Reynorio Tamayo to All-Star Weekend in Washington, D.C., in the form of the “Cuban Slugger Exhibit”. He invited me to speak at the exhibit opening about the meaning of baseball for Cubans, then and now. One of the things I learned about Tommy is that he loves bringing people together, to talk baseball, life, and culture.
Looking back Tommy’s life journey, which includes extended stints in London, Spain, Costa Rica and the D.C. area, it seem to all make sense. Tommy is an accomplished attorney and businessman, most recently at The Cohen group, where he managed the firm’s Caribbean portfolio which led him on dozens of visits to the reason. That love of baseball and the need to make a difference is what fuels Tommy and inspired me to reconnect with him. Let’s put Tommy at bat so we can hopefully spark some good conversation with you and our La Vida Baseball community.
Adrian Burgos, Jr: Can you share a story of a player or person that is your go-to inspiration to help you to continue to do what you do?”
Tommy Goodman: I would say in Cuba in general it is the passionate baseball fanatics that we have met along the way – unparalleled passion, really. This spirit is embodied by a man named “Coach Nicolas,” who was featured in the documentary film “Ghost Town to Havana” and who I recently had the good fortune of meeting. He has tirelessly trained youth teams in Central Havana for literally decades, showing up to practice every afternoon to share his knowledge and passion for the game…and ensure that the kids have every opportunity possible to play the game they love and pursue their dreams.
On the US side, it would be our founder Lou Schwechheimer, who had the vision over 15 years ago to develop this incredible cultural goodwill initiative.
AB: What is your favorite memory of your visit(s) to Cuba? Or to the Dominican Republic?
TG: In Cuba, there is a tie. During my first visit to Havana, just hours after landing, I found myself participating in a softball game with “Los Veteranos,” a group of retired Cuban ballplayers. I immediately understood the power of baseball as a bridge-builder. This interaction is tied with attending and participating in the events surrounding the Tampa Bay Rays’ visit to Cuba in March 2016. It was a truly magical moment.
In the DR, I loved visiting the Pedro Martínez Foundation in Manoguayabo. The warmth with which we were received as well as meeting the kids and passing out baseball gear along with the U.S. players was incredible.
AB: Tell us about what sparked your love of baseball and your career journey to becoming Executive Director of the Caribbean Educational & Baseball Foundation. What inspired the CEBF’s vision of baseball serving as a means of engaging in diplomacy between the United States and Caribbean countries?
TG: I was fortunate to take the reins of CEBF about 12 months ago after having served as an outside consultant for over five years.
As a lifelong baseball fan and having lived, worked and traveled throughout Latin America, I was immediately struck by the impact the foundation could have, and I embraced the opportunity to become a “baseball diplomat” and help to execute CEBF’s important and unique mission.
The real driving force behind CEBF was our founder, current Board president and longtime Minor League Baseball executive Lou Schweccheimer. After giving a talk at the University of Havana in 2003, and meeting a number of individuals on the island, he recognized that – despite obvious cultural and political differences – everyone understood the common language of baseball. From there, he set out to find ways to bring the U.S. and Cuba together through the sport. Slowly but surely he started to build out the organization and expand the scope to include other parts of the Caribbean region.
AB: The CEBF’s motto is “Building Bridges Through a Shared Passion for Baseball.” What inspired that motto? What are some examples of the initiatives that the foundation has undertaken to accomplish this aim? Which initiatives are you particularly proud of in terms of impact and demonstrating the aim of building bridges?
TG: The motto was inspired by the recognition that despite any political, cultural, language or other divides, a common passion for the sport of baseball can truly bring people together and create friendships that extend beyond the diamond.
To this end, CEBF’s steadfast engagement through an emphasis on baseball as the “common denominator” has fostered and created a broad network and built trust and relationships that might not have been possible otherwise. Furthermore, it has given us unique insights and understandings that have enabled us to develop initiatives with various counterparts in the U.S and the Caribbean.
In the Caribbean, I am proud of the delivery of dozens of gear-filled suitcases to and visits with youth in need, as well as the ongoing baseball-focused people-to-people trips that CEBF organizes and facilitates, which have and will continue to open minds and hearts and build friendships and understanding.
On the U.S. side, I am particularly proud of a pair of CEBF-led initiatives: one was a 2016 Symposium at SUNY Cortland, which featured U.S. and Cuban officials and baseball personalities and included a private opening reception at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The other was the art exhibition of the Havana-based baseball artist Reynerio Tamayo in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the MLB All-Star Game last summer. Both illustrated the unifying power of baseball to bring together a range of stakeholders to exchange ideas and connect.
AB: I wish the La Vida Baseball community had a chance to experience that with us! Cuba has been one of the places where the CEBF has sought to build bridges. What has been your impression of the passion that Cubans have for baseball? How does the foundation link education and baseball in Cuba? What has been the response among Cuban people and Cuban government officials?
TG: The Cubans’ passion for baseball runs very deep – the sport has been an integral part of the island’s cultural heritage since it was first played there in the 1860s. It is truly part of their DNA – a concept that perhaps is best illustrated through the intense debates on all things baseball among rabid fans at the “hot corner” in Havana’s Central Park.
The educational element of our collaboration with Cuba is more “cultural education,” which is to say we are working to identify ways that baseball has linked our two cultures in conjunction with other elements of shared heritage. The best example of this principle is our “two Hersheys” program that highlights the connection between the former town of Hershey, Cuba and the town of the same name in Central Pennsylvania. As part of that initiative we are organizing a series of youth-focused collaborative activities centered around baseball.
While we have inevitably run up against the weight of six decades of mistrust, on both sides of the Straits of Florida, for the most part the response in Cuba has been very positive. We have taken a slow and deliberate approach that emphasizes mutual respect, patience and transparency.
AB: What other places in the Caribbean has the foundation undertaken initiatives?
TG: Earlier this year we supported the visit of a DC-area youth baseball team to the Dominican Republic, which included friendly exhibition games, tours of MLB academies, guest lectures, visits with U.S. and Dominican diplomats, and a baseball equipment delivery to nearly 200 children at the Pedro Martínez Foundation in Manoguayabo. Our entire group – from the youth players to the parents to the coaches – as well as our Dominican counterparts came away with greater and deeper cultural understanding of how baseball can open doors and make an impact on peoples’ lives.
We have also begun to explore programming in other baseball-loving places in the Caribbean, from the traditional (Puerto Rico, Mexico) to the non-traditional (Aruba, Curacao and even Jamaica).
AB: You have witnessed the passion for baseball in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other parts of the Caribbean as well as the Nationals Academy in Washington, DC. Share a couple of stories that highlight the manner baseball became a bridge for the people from these countries and the United States.
TG: My favorite bridge-building anecdote dates back to the 1870s. The first Latino to play professional baseball in the U.S. was Esteban Bellán, a Cuban who attended Fordham University and played for the National Association from 1871 to 1873. He went by Steve during those years.
As you know, the baseball connection between the U.S. and Cuba has continued throughout the nearly 150 years since, from the hundreds of Negro Leaguers who played on the island, to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Havana during Spring Training in 1947, to the Minor League Havana Cubans and Havana Sugar Kings in the 1940s and 1950s, to the exhibition games played between the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays against the Cuban National Team in 1999 and on March 22, 2016, respectively.
Similar stories are prevalent throughout the region, from the doors opened by Puerto Rico’s Roberto Clemente to Curacao’s proud claim to have the highest ratio of players per capita in Major League Baseball.
We at CEBF hope to continue this bridge-building legacy over the coming months and years through our own goodwill initiatives.
AB: Thanks for the work that you’re doing, Tommy. We look forward to staying in touch.