Most people pack sunblock and bathing suits for their Christmas or spring break trips to Mexico. Jeff Cogbill and his son Aries pack baseball equipment. Lots of it.
Cogbill and his son were in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, near Cancun, over Christmas and again from March 15-21 to continue a mission the pair initiated after a 2010 trip to the island.
Cogbill drove around to the back of the island on that first trip, away from the fancy resorts and hotels, and saw people living in shacks and kids playing baseball with sticks and rocks. The lifelong baseball lover and 11AA youth coach returned home to Hudson and told his son what he had seen. Without pausing Aries responded, "Dad, we have all this baseball gear laying around. Why don't you go back and give it to those kids?"
So Cogbill returned to Mexico in 2011, and again in 2013, bringing with him as much gear he could scrape together and carry on an airplane.
"It was on a very small scale, maybe five bats and 10 baseballs," he said. "But the kids were ecstatic."
But Cogbill knew the kids needed more. So last October, he and his son collected used equipment at an event they organized at Starr's Bar in North Hudson. He said the response from the community was overwhelming.
"We had a massive turnout," Cogbill said. "I had to load my truck three times and take it home and back. Gloves, bats, over 200 baseballs, catcher's gear, bags, helmets, batting gloves. And the Hudson Boosters donated some softball stuff because softball is big on the island too."
The Cogbills ended up bringing seven big boxes of equipment, "thousands of dollars worth," Jeff said, on their December trip to Isla Mujeres. They were joined on the trip by Nick Hirsch, a player on Cogbill's 11AA traveling baseball team, and his family, who heard about what the Cogbills were doing and wanted to help.
First the group had to get the equipment to the airport, then to the boats to get out to the island, then off the boats and to the storage sheds at the field. Cogbill said all went well at the start of the trip, but things got complicated after they landed in Mexico.
"We left Dec. 19 and all was good at the airport here," he said. "In fact, we had a great response when they learned what we were doing. Then we got to customs in Mexico and apparently I didn't have the correct paperwork for donations. So they were tearing all the boxes open and wanted to seize everything. In my mind I'm thinking, we can do a lot for the kids with all this stuff. But they didn't see it that way."
Eventually the Mexican customs officials decided to tax Cogbill around $40 based on what they thought the equipment was worth, and sent the group on its way. Just as they stepped off the boat at Isla Mujeres, it started to pour.
"It was a torrential downpour and we still had to get everything to the storage sheds and it was just pouring; we could hardly see," he said.
Despite the early glitches the group was eventually able to distribute the donated equipment to the kids in addition to hosting a camp for the youth.
"The camp went great," Cogbill aid. "The turnout by the kids was great and there was a good mix of boys and girls. We sent each kid home with a ball and a glove and they were ecstatic about that. And Nick and his family helped at camp. I think it was a great experience for him and his whole family."
But by the end of the December trip Cogbill noticed there was still more that needed to be done.
"They needed anchored bases and the hitting and pitching nets were in pretty dire shape," he said.
So he returned to Hudson and hit up some local businesses to try and raise funds for the next phase of the project. One of the largest donations came from LoLo American Kitchen and Craft Bar in Hudson.
"They donated all the money for the hitting and pitching nets," Cogbill said. "It was very generous of them to do that."
So Cogbill and his son returned to Isla Mujeres over spring break. This time when he landed at the airport in Mexico he had a more pleasant surprise than his previous trip.
"At the airport here's Matt Parent, the commissioner of the Boosters baseball down there with his kids and family," Cogbill said. "I thought, what a great opportunity for him to see what we were doing down there. So Matt and his family came down to the field and his family helped assemble the nets and dig in the anchors for the bases. It was great that his family was able to come down. I think they really got something out of it."
But there was one more surprise for Cogbill. On the final day of the trip the local players and their families showed up at the field with a cake and sodas to celebrate Cogbill's birthday.
"That was really cool," he said. "I had a big smile on my face.
Cogbill said he's embraced the relationships he's developed on his trips to the island.
It's been great to get to know the community; they are just great people," he said. "Everyone wants to shake your hand and buy you a beer. Everybody likes everybody."
That's why he has no intention of ending his trips to the island.
"I'm actually planning two more trips," he said. "I have so much more equipment and there are so many more things that they need. They drag the field with a cement brick so I'd like to bring down a drag. And more anchors and more bases. Aries wants to paint the dugouts and a big need is chalk."
Cogbill said he'll be able to purchase the paint and chalk in Cancun, which will be a lot more practical than trying to bring the supplies down on an airplane.
Cogbill said we're lucky up here to be able to provide our kids with things like baseball gloves and bats, and he's committed to doing the same down there.
"You see what they have," he said about the Isla Mujeres youth. "We have kids here that say, I need a $300 glove. What? We just take it for granted that we have the money for those things up here. They don't."
Cogbill recalled a story from his first trip to Isla Mujeres that keeps him going back.
"I got to know the bartender at the hotel where I was staying, and after I saw what the kids had I told him I was coming back to help and he said, sure," Cogbill said. "That really stuck with me. I suppose they hear that all the time so when I went back he was surprised."
They're not surprised anymore.