By Dianne Pinder-Moss
When Bill Ryan and his wife Nora first started holidaying in Cuba approximately 10 years ago, they wanted to show their appreciation of the staff at the resort in which they were staying.
Aware that Cubans are huge baseball fans, Bill collected baseball gloves from his co-workers, purchased some balls, and using an old lathe he had been given, he decided to handcraft some children’s baseball bats.
“I thought this might be something they could use,” he says. “They did. They loved it.”
Ryan continued to make bats to give to the children of the resort workers each year and took them down with them when they vacationed. This went on for five or six years, he says, but then things changed in 2009.
The self-avowed hobbyist handyman had an opportunity to present a bat he had made and decorated with Cuban images to Ricardo Alarcon, then president of the Cuban National Assembly. The presentation took place at a dinner following an international conference hosted by Queen’s University on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, in which Alarcon had spoken about the “Cuban Five.”
“Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo led a group of agents to Miami to monitor exile groups who, for years, planned and executed terrorist attacks on Cuba and its people,” Ryan says when asked about the Cuban Five. “While all received long prison sentences after their arrest and conviction, Gerardo as leader was given the harshest — two life sentences plus 15 years.”
As a follow up to the dinner, it was suggested that Ryan consider making bats for the families of the Cuban Five. He took up the suggestion and, in December 2009, was invited to deliver the bats to some of the family members in Havana. That’s when he and Nora first met Adriana Perez O’Connor, the wife of Hernandez Nordelo.
“When we met her, she had a conversation with Gerardo on the telephone and I spoke with him,” he recalls. “We started writing back and forth in early 2010 and became friends.”
Through that friendship, Hernandez Nordelo started providing Ryan with ideas for various projects. For instance, when his favourite team won the 2010 Cuban National Series, he asked Ryan if he could make a trophy bat to mark the occasion. He did and has continued to do so for the winning team each year.
Trophy bats with their trademark logo of the Cuban Five campaign — a stylized five based on a design created by Hernandez Nordelo — and other markings and drawings burned onto the wood have also been given to Cuban star players and a wide variety of people. One was sent to U.S. President Barack Obama in 2010. “It contained the signatures of 50 Cubans and 50 Canadians asking for the release of The Five.”
Ryan’s basement of his Beckwith home serves as his workshop. “In an 11-hour day, I can make and decorate eight bats,” he says.
Maple is his preferred wood of choice, but finding quality wood has always been a challenge for him, so he bought a sawmill in the Carleton Place area to ensure a ready supply. Two homemade solar kilns set up in his backyard are used to dry the 3 x 3 x 36-inch maple squares after they are cut.
In 2012, Ryan and Hernandez Nordelo formalized the project under the name of Cubacan. At the same time at Hernandez Nordelo’s suggestion, Ryan started making bats for players to use in the Cuban ball league. While the bats were originally intended for batting practice, they have been used in regular play for the past few seasons. They were also used by the Cuban team during last year’s Pan Am Games in Toronto.
Over the past five or six years, Ryan estimates he has made more than 900 bats, 600 having been given to teams in Cuba. Earlier this year, the Cuban sports ministry purchased 200 bats from him for distribution throughout the ball league. All league teams are now using his bats. The remainder are trophy bats.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the bats, I gave to Cuba,” he says, adding that the bats sold to Cuba were sold for less than for what Cuba pays for the wood to manufacture the bats there. “I’m not in this for the money.”
In December 2015, Ryan was finally able to meet him in person in Havana. “We continue to work together,” he says.
The pair’s current project is focused on improving the quality of the bats now made in Cuba, as well as increasing the production capabilities. Ryan is determined to make this happen after touring a bat making factory in Havana in December and observing how rudimentary the equipment was. One worker had been using the same lathe for 50 years.
“They asked me, what can I do to make them better bats and more bats,” he says. “As soon as I got back, I started looking into it.”
After ruling out a CNC lathe used by most major bat manufacturers because the almost $250,000 price tag and the electronic components, which are not suited to the Cuban environment, its predecessor, a hydraulic copy lathe, was found to be a better fit.
“We are going to buy one of the used hydraulic lathes and all the equipment they need to support it,” says Ryan.
The approximately $60,000 budget for the project will cover the cost of the copy lathe, as well as finishing lathes, saws, proper lighting, safety equipment, shipping and setup costs.
Cubacan is partnering on the project with the Canadian Network on Cuba, an umbrella organization of all the Cuban solidarity groups in Canada. In addition, Ryan says they will be reaching out to trade unions who have historically supported Cuba and the many Canadians who visit Cuba each year. The Valley Woodturners has offered technical support and knowledge.
Perth Councillor Jim Graff hopes Ryan will address town council about this fundraising project in the near future to see if council can help. If that occurs, his hope is that council will respond favourably, not only for sporting reasons, but to put Perth on the Friends of Cuba list.
Ryan hopes to have the fundraising completed by the end of this year so that the shipping and installation of the equipment can take place in 2017.
The impact this project will have on the Cuban factory and its workers is underscored by Ryan. “For them, they make between 6,000 and 8,000 bats a year now,” he says. “They will have the capability to make 20,000 bats a year.”
Ryan and the Cubacan project are looking for donations. Supporters can donate by contacting Ryan by phone at 613-284-0254 or by email at email@example.com, or donate online.