The game didn’t count in the standings, but Tuesday afternoon’s exhibition between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team carried tremendous symbolic importance. The contest, played in front of some 55,000 fans at Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano and won by the Rays, 4–1, positioned baseball as the vanguard of the changing relationship between the United States and Cuba following more than a half-century of embargo. Not only was it just the second visit by a major league team since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power (the first was in 1999, when the Orioles visited), but it marked the first time that a sitting U.S. President visited the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. President Obama led an entourage that included the First Family, Rachel Robinson and Sharon Robinson (the widow and daughter of Jackie Robinson, respectively) and several dozen members of Congress.
Major League Baseball, which in December embarked upon a three-day goodwill tour of the island, sent a high-profile entourage as well, headed by commissioner Rob Manfred, chief baseball officer (and Hall of Famer) Joe Torre, fellow Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, and former major league stars Derek Jeter, Jose Cardenal and Luis Tiant, the last two of whom are natives of Cuba. The 75-year-old Tiant, the majors’ all-time leader in wins (229) among Cuban-born pitchers, shared ceremonial first-pitch honors with 42-year-old Pedro Lazo, a longtime star for Pinar del Rio of Cuba’s Serie Nacional as well as Olympic gold and silver-medal-winning Cuban National Teams. MLB umpires Angel Hernandez (who was born in Havana) and Laz Diaz (a Miami native of Cuban descent) joined four Cuban umpires in working the contest.
The Rays — who back in November won a lottery to represent MLB in this capacity — faced a Cuban squad that has been hard-hit by defections in recent years; a total of 27 Cuban-born players, many of whom had previously represented the country in international competition, saw time in the majors last year. That count doesn’t include brothers Yulieski and Lourdes Gourriel, stars both in Serie Nacional and for the national team who defected back in February, nor does it include Rays farmhand Dayron Varona, who led off for Tampa Bay and started in rightfield.
The Cuban-born Varona, 28, spent seven seasons in Serie Nacional (2007-2013) before defecting in 2013; in 2015, his first season stateside, he split his time between High A and Double A levels. In his first visit back to his native country since his defection, he was greeted with a subdued reception from the fans (an invitation-only group designed to eliminate protestors), though his Rays teammates gave him an ovation as he came to the plate. He popped out to first base on his first pitch and with the knowledge the ball was going to Cooperstown, according to ESPN’s Marly Rivera. Varona was then greeted with high fives from teammates who appreciated the significance of the moment.
The first inning featured a pair of defensive highlights. In the top of the frame, Cuba centerfielder Roel Santos made a sliding catch on Brad Miller’s fly ball. In the bottom of the inning, with runners on second and first and one out, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria overcame a bobble on a tough chopper off the bat of William Saavedra, saving a run with a hard throw and a long stretch by first baseman James Loney, who turned out to be one of the game’s heroes.
Cuba failed to score in that inning, but the Rays capitalized in the top of the second against Cuban starter Yosvani Torres, a soft-tossing lefty. Kevin Kiermaier stroked a one-out double into the left-centerfield gap, Desmond Jennings followed with a walk and then Loney singled to rightfield. From his front-row seat behind home plate, President Obama shouted “Go! Go! Go!” as Kiermaier rounded third and signaled “safe” as he crossed the plate, rising out of his seat to cheer the run. His counterpart, Cuban president Raul Castro, laughed and shook Obama’s hand in congratulations — a light moment that brought a glimpse of the way that baseball offers common ground that can bring the two countries together:
Via the Sporting News’ Josh Hyber:
“For 50 years, we had no contact with this country and it was not serving our ultimate goal, which is freedom and opportunity for the Cuban people. We initiated a new policy of engagement. We understand that the government here continues to control all aspects of life, that individual freedoms continue to be curtailed.
...“We consulted a lot with Cuban-Americans before we initiated this change. There's a debate within the community as to whether this is appropriate or not because there's still a lot of frustration and anger about the history of what the Cuban exiles experienced.
"But my view has been that if you do something for 50 years and it doesn't work, you've got to try something else, and we're going to continue ... to amplify our concerns about Cuban rights about people who are being arbitrarily detained and harassed just for speaking their minds or expressing their political views.”
The interlude superseded coverage of the action for nearly the entire inning before Obama departed the stadium to travel for a state visit to Argentina. Once he did, the ESPN crew interviewed Jeter; meanwhile, Loney provided additional fireworks in the fourth. Following another walk by Jennings, reliever Livan Moinelo, another lefty, allowed a two-run homer to Loney, which gave the Rays a 3–0 lead.
After most of their starting lineup exited the game, the Rays scratched out another run in the seventh. Mikie Mahtook led off by working an 11-pitch walk by Danny Betancourt, who departed in favor hard-throwing righty Miguel Lahera. Mahtook stole second, then came home on Steve Pearce’s single to leftfield. The Rays soon loaded the bases, but Richie Shaffer grounded into an inning-ending double play.
While the Rays built their lead, starter Matt Moore kept Cuba off the scoreboard, scattering six hits and one walk over six innings, while striking out three. He was generally sharp over the course of 80-plus pitches. After stranding runners on second and third in the first inning, he allowed just one other runner to reach scoring position. Relievers Ryan Webb and Xavier Cedendo followed with scoreless frames; the latter surrendered a two-out triple into the rightfield corner by Yosvani Alarcón, but two pitches later, Alexander Malleta grounded out to Pearce at first base.
Cuba finally got on the board with one out in the bottom of the ninth, when Rudy Reyes hit a two-strike hanging breaking ball from Alex Colome to leftfield for a home run. Juan Torriente followed with a double into the rightfield corner, but Colome closed the door, inducing Yoandry Urgellés to ground out before striking out Guillermo Aviles swinging.
Players from the two teams exchanged jerseys following the game, producing one final feel-good moment for the afternoon. Even so, the contest was not greeted with unanimous approval, particularly by Cuban exiles in the US who feel that the president getting cozy with a dictator over baseball trivializes nearly six decades of Cubans suffering under Communist rule. One vocal critic from within the world of US sports is writer and radio host Dan Le Batard, the son of Cuban exiles who fled the country as 16-year-olds. In a blistering column in the Miami Herald on Monday, Le Batard wrote “America extends its hand toward a dictator who has the blood of my people on his own. And now my parents, old exiles, have to watch Obama and Jeter and ESPN throw a happy party on land that was stolen from my family … as the rest of America celebrates it, no less.”
One afternoon could not possibly come close to undoing that suffering or healing those wounds, and one visit from the President won’t improve the lives of Cuban people without Cuban leaders making a long-lasting commitment to human rights and a more open society. Baseball, at least, is working to make it safer for Cuban players to come stateside. Earlier this month, MLB submitted a proposal to the US Treasury Department that would allow major league teams to sign Cuban players directly rather than requiring them to defect, a process that places them in the hands of smugglers and human traffickers for a journey that can be perilous or even fatal. Harrowing stories such as those of Leonys Martin’s 2011 defection — which included him being held for ransom in Mexico — or that of Yasiel Puig in 2012 are the rule, not the exception. The proposal would require a delicate dance to get around current US policy towards Cuba, creating a nonprofit entity of baseball officials and Cuban entrepreneurs that would receive a percentage of salaries paid to the Cuban players. Those funds would help to support youth baseball and improved facilities, equipment and education in the country.
It remains to be seen where that proposal goes, but for one afternoon, baseball brought the two countries together under unique circumstances. Let us hope it’s just the first of many engagements to come.