Beckwith's Bat Man: Bill Ryan's handcrafted baseball bats are scoring home runs on the diamond, and in the hearts of Cubans
OTTAWA -- In a quaint corner of small-town, rural Canada, an Ottawa Valley woodworker is turning lumber into hope; changing lives worlds away.
“We were trying to find a way to help,” said Bill Ryan of Beckwith Township.
“Well, making bats is what I do, so we thought let’s try that.”
Bill Ryan and his wife, Nora, love to vacation in Cuba. They’ve been there more than a dozen times. During their early trips, the couple gifted a few of Bill’s handcrafted baseball bats to some Cuban friends.
“I made three bats, I didn’t know anything about them at the time, and the reaction was phenomenal,” he said.
It wasn’t long before Bill’s bats would become a hit with a baseball-mad country.
“They’re all baseball fans. They’re all fanatics; it’s their game, their passion.”
Among Bill’s fans, Gerardo Hernandez, one of five Cuban intelligence officers on an anti-terrorism mission in Miami, convicted of spying in the U.S. in 1998. Hernandez was given two life-sentences. From a California prison, Hernandez would ask Bill to make some bats for his favourite Cuban team. The players fell in love with them and wanted to use them in their games.
“And after that it was ‘make as many bats as you can and get them there any way you can’,” Bill said with a chuckle.
“So, everything is history after that. We went from 20 bats to 3000 bats, it seems like overnight, but it’s more like 10 years,” he said.
While one prisoner was released in 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama freed Hernandez and the remaining members of the so-called “Cuban Five” in 2014, and they returned to Cuba as national heroes. Bill’s bats would now also pack a political wallop: the barbed wire drawn on every one a symbol of their struggle.
“Now for the major leaguers, the top players, there’s a lot of emotion because they know Gerardo spent 16 years in a prison. And when they go to the plate, their swings reflect that when they hit the ball,” Bill said.
Following his release, Hernandez and Bill became friends. They formed Cubacan--an organization where Canadians could support Cubans, including young players with baseball dreams.
“We sent two and a half tons of kids' equipment to Cuba last year,” Ryan said.
However, Bill said ongoing embargos and sanctions imposed by the U.S. government, along with the challenges of COVID-19, continue to hurt the Cuban economy, the country’s people, and baseball teams struggling to get the equipment they need.
“Our project this year is to send bats to the national series, to their top players. Our target is 600 bats. The donation is 50 dollars per bat if you want to send a bat to Cuba,” Ryan said.
Bill is well-stocked with supplies and is in full production 11 hours a day. He’s been drying wooden blanks all summer in his outdoor kiln; the lumber cut at his own sawmill, just 20 minutes away. He is using his lathe to turn a field of dreams for a grateful country and its baseball-proud people.
“Yesterday I watched a little bit of one game on one of the YouTube channels and three of the players were using one of my bats. These are the top players in the world. It’s very gratifying.”
To make a donation to send a bat to Cuba, you can find pledge forms and more information at Cubacan.org.