Constable: How a baseball coach from Hoffman Estates ended up teaching in Cuba
The relationship between the United States and Cuba became strained last week when the Trump administration banned U.S. cruise ships from sailing to the island nation and cracked down on other travel there. But the relationship between longtime baseball coach and executive Peter Caliendo of Hoffman Estates and Cuba has never been better.
"It's taken 18, 20 years to gain their confidence," says Caliendo, 57, the vice president of International Sports Group Baseball, who just returned from Cuba after becoming the first American baseball coach to conduct coaching courses across the socialist country. "They realize we're just an organization that wants to help coaches. I'm the first U.S. coach. To have that opportunity as an American is thrilling."
Growing up in Elmwood Park, Caliendo went to the prestigious Mickey Owen Baseball School in Missouri during the summer when he was 15 years old, and he blossomed enough to go on to the University of Illinois at Chicago as a versatile player who could fill in anywhere on the diamond.
"I realized at a certain age that I didn't have the athletic attributes to make it at another level," says Caliendo. He had an opportunity to train as an umpire, but Caliendo migrated instead into coaching, a career that has taken him around the globe.
"We've been educating coaches in 14 or 15 countries every year," says Caliendo, who is president of Caliendo Sports International. He has brought his baseball acumen to more than 30 nations, including traditional baseball countries such as Mexico, Japan, the nations of Latin America, and Canada and Australia, as well as Italy, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Belgium, Croatia, Russia, Poland, Germany and France.
Director of baseball instruction for the Mickey Owen Baseball School from 1975 through 1985, Caliendo set up more than two dozen camps in the Chicago area. He is one of a rare number of people who has spent his entire career in baseball.
"I sold phones for two months, and it wasn't my gig," Caliendo says. "I can sell baseball because I have a love for it."
As the first director of baseball operations for the Schaumburg Flyers professional baseball team, Caliendo married his wife, Beverly, in an on-field ceremony under a canopy of crossed baseball bats. She serves as a nice change of pace during Caliendo's work because she doesn't know much about baseball's elite. She says she once had a very pleasant chat with Tony La Russa and never asked him about baseball because she had no idea he was a Hall of Fame manager.
Inducted into the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2018 and a recipient of countless U.S. awards, Caliendo was destined for international work. He spent three years of his childhood with his grandparents in Rome and grew up speaking Italian. He burst onto the international baseball scene in the 1990s when he put together the first 16-year-old U.S. team to compete in the Pan Am Games. "We didn't have technology, so we have to make phone calls to find out who were the best freshmen and sophomores," he remembers.
In 1993, Caliendo's U.S. team beat Mexico to win the Pan Am gold behind a four-hit game by catcher David Ross, who went on to win a World Series ring with the 2016 Chicago Cubs.
"There's nothing better than representing your country. When you are wearing that uniform and they're playing the national anthem, it's pretty special," says Caliendo, who also has served on and been in charge of committees for numerous World Championships, the 2009 Baseball World Cup and the 2008 Olympics.
He's been to Cuba nine times, but this last trip was his first as a coach. The Cuban Baseball Federation has produced several MLB players from a pool of only 60,000 young players compared to 25 million in the U.S., and it recently started promoting a fast-pace, miniature version of baseball with only five players, called Baseball 5.
"They're very good at what they do," Caliendo says. "But with a little bit more information, they can get even better."
Caliendo says he hopes some educational exceptions in the new travel restrictions will allow him to coach again in Cuba.
"Baseball brings people together. They love the game," Caliendo says of the Cuban people. "Hopefully, one day we can all be working together to better our countries."