BILOXI -- "There were more goosebump moments on this trip," Keith Crosby, general manager of Palace Casino in Biloxi, said after he and two others from Biloxi returned from a five-day trip to Cuba with Yankee Hall of Famer Rich "Goose" Gossage. It was the 10th trip to Cuba for Bobby Carter, a Golden Nugget Casino Biloxi executive, and the first for Crosby and Biloxi plastic surgeon Michael Diaz.
One of those goosebump experiences came when the foursome drove three hours from Havana to a town where Diaz tracked down cousins he'd never met.
Another was when the former Yankee pitcher demonstrated to a young Cuban player how to grip the ball and deliver the pitch.
Then there were the two suitcases full of signed baseballs from this year's Yankee spring training the group provided to kids who were using dirty, scarred balls.
You can't just go up to a group of kids and hand out baseballs, the Biloxi contingency said. "You need to be careful you don't embarrass the government," Crosby said. "We did it respectfully," They gave the balls to the coaches.
Their reward came a half-hour later when the Americans drove by the field and saw a Cuban pitcher tossing a bright-white ball during a neighborhood game.
Gossage pitches goodwill
The United States couldn't pick a better ambassador to Cuba than Gossage, said Crosby, who became the group's unofficial photographer. He snapped hundreds of photos showing Gossage autographing a bat and interacting with his Cuban fans. Among them were a group of men who were featured on "60 Minutes" because they openly gather at a plaza and discuss baseball. Gossage was given permission to talk to them.
"When they realized who Goose was, you could see their faces light up," Crosby said.
"Team picture," Gossage yelled at the end of their meeting and he posed for several photos with the group.
Another fan who recognized the Yankee great on the street asked him to wait a minute and ran home, returning quickly with a prized Goose Gossage baseball card. It now sports a Gossage autograph.
"He's the most personal super-celebrity I've every been around," Carter said of Gossage.
It's goodwill visits like this that give Carter hope the Cuban National baseball team will one day play at MGM Park in Biloxi.
Diaz said Carter's work could make South Mississippi a leader in positive dialog with Cuba. "Everyone in Cuba speaks baseball," he said.
Other businesses and groups need to get behind Carter's dream of bringing the Cuban team to South Mississippi, Diaz said. "It's going to take a village to make this thing happen."
After visiting the island where his grandfather was born, Diaz said his mission is to help elevate the standard of living of the Cuban people and get them the supplies they need.
"Cuba has a special place in my heart," he said. "My grandfather left Cuba in the mid- to late '20s and came to the United States for opportunity."
His grandfather worked his way up to manage an alcohol distillery plant and regularly sent money to his family in Cuba.
After Cuba's revolution, "all the doors were shut," Diaz said. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union pulled out and the Cubans were left in dire straits, he said. It wasn't until Diaz met his second and third cousin in Cuba that he learned his grandfather had returned that fateful year "under the radar" to bring help to his family. He was about 90 and was so upset with the conditions of his native country he vowed never to return. He never did.
But before he left he took the navy-blue shirt off his back and gave it to his nephew, telling him to wear it when he saw him again.
"That same nephew is now 90. He heard I was coming and he put the shirt on," Diaz said. "It looked brand-new."
Gossage accompanied the Coastians to find Diaz's family and they all ate together at a restaurant with a dirt floor. The tab was $25 for 10 people, who dined on rice and beans, pork, a just-butchered chicken and plantains.
Cuban facts of life
The Cubans are very cautious in their dealings with Americans, who are the only tourists not already visiting, Crosby said. Tourists from other countries have been heard saying they plan to buy a house on the island before the Americans arrive and Carter said that's already beginning to happen. "I've seen more Americans this particular trip than I have before," he said.
Cuba wasn't what the first-time visitors from Biloxi expected, even after the publicity that accompanied recent visits by the pope, the president and the Rolling Stones.
"I came away very much disturbed about what the embargo had done to the people of Cuba," Crosby said. "Things they were doing without that they didn't even know they were doing without."
The island has 12 million people but no news, no internet and no cell phones for residents. The average salary is $30 a month and a surgeon makes $45 a month. But Diaz said, "They don't have anything to buy." Everyone has a government-owned house to live in. All food is rationed and Cubans stand in long lines to get it from the government, he said.
Everyone gets free medical and dental care. More than 25 medical schools are on the island -- more than in the Eastern United States -- but Diaz said the surgeons he met were begging for bandages, Band-Aids and Tylenol, products they can't get because of the U.S. embargo. He hopes to find a way to provide them.
Diaz asked Cubans if they have hope the embargo may be lifted and said, "I was waiting to hear an overwhelming, 'Yes, finally.'"
That didn't happen. "They think what they have is the right way. Their loyalty is 100 percent on the government. They see it as their savior," he said.
When he was leaving Cuba, the sun was coming up but people at the Havana airport had their heads down, he said. With no spirit and no hope, "it's a dark place."
After a quick flight to Miami, it was as though someone flipped a switch to trigger music and chaos. "Just 90 miles away the lights are on," he said.