This Tuesday afternoon is an historic occasion for Major League Baseball, as well as a major milestone for relations between the United States and Cuba.
Today’s game against the Cuban National Team at the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, Cuba was not exactly a typical Spring Training contest for the Tampa Bay Rays. One noticeable difference was the number of fans; with a capacity crowd of 50,000, Estadio Latinoamericano holds about ten times more patrons than Charlotte Sports Park, the Rays’ spring home. And all 50,000 seats were packed, as fans strained their necks in anticipation of President Barack Obama‘s pre-game arrival. For the first time since the Baltimore Orioles’ visit in 1999, Major League Baseball was back in Cuba.
Obama eventually arrived with his family, shaking hands, waving to the fans, and taking his seat behind home plate next to Cuban President Raul Castro. Several luminaries in the baseball world greeted Obama and briefly spoke with the President, including Hall of Famers Dave Winfield, future Hall member Derek Jeter, Commissioner Rob Manfred, and Jackie Robinson‘s 93-year-old widow, Rachel Robinson. Sporting his trademark outlandish white mustache, Marianao, Cuba native and all-time Sox great Luis Tiant also shared a few words with the President.
At the conclusion of an extravagant pre-game ceremony filled with many cute Cuban children, dozens of flags, and plenty of puzzled expressions from the Rays, there was a minute of silence for the victims of Tuesday’s terrible terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium.
After that somber moment, the atmosphere brightened almost immediately, as the Cuban fans began fervently chanting, hoping their national squad could embarrass the Rays. The game itself, however, was sadly a bit of a letdown. Rays’ starter Matt Moore scattered six hits in six scoreless innings, and first baseman James Loney provided Moore all the run support he needed, driving in three runs and hitting a dinger. Though the Cuban squad showed a spark of life in the form of a brief, bottom of the ninth rally, the Rays won 4-1.
Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo knows firsthand how conflicted many talented Cuban players are about the difficult decision on whether they should defect to America and sign lucrative MLB deals. While Cespedes has declined to provide all the details about his defection in the winter of 2013-2014, we know that he left his parents and young son back in Cuba.
Castillo commented, “I heard about Obama landing in Cuba [on Monday], and it’s great to me because it’s a step in the right direction. Right now, players who are able to come over here, we have to take a lot of risks. Hopefully the next generation of Cuban players can come over here without that risk. I’m looking forward to a day where the average Cuban can come to the United States, just like us baseball players who have come here to play baseball. I think [baseball] can open a lot of doors to that.”
Major League fans have had the privilege to watch many exciting Cuban players over the years; guys like Aroldis Chapman, Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, and Jose Fernandez are the kind of players capable of astounding you and making things that you’ve never seen on a baseball field happen every night. Outside of the political implications of improved relations between the United States and Cuba, I think most American fans would selfishly love if moving from Cuba to the Major Leagues became a less harrowing, difficult process in the near future.
Cespedes would fully embrace the opportunity to be in the Rays’ shoes and head home. “First of all, I would just love to go back to Cuba,” he said. “Second of all, I would love to go back with my team. I think of so many memories I have from growing up over there and being able to see my family again and be with them and hang out, it would be very special for me.”