On a day that was marked with a dark cloud over the terror attacks in Brussels, Belgium, many were able to seek solace with a landmark event that occurred in Havana, Cuba. For the first time since 1999, a Major League Baseball game was played in the country that, for decades, had been relatively closed off to the United States. A symbol of renewed openness and relations between the United States and Cuba saw Presidents Obama and Castro sitting behind the netting at Estadio Latinoamericano as the Tampa Bay Rays took on the Cuban National Team in a Spring Training exhibition game.
The Rays defeated the Cuban National Team by a score of 4-1 as Dayron Varona made his return to his native Cuba, leading off for Tampa Bay. Prior to stepping into the batter’s box, Varona received a standing ovation from all fans in attendance; he is the first player to ever defect and then return to play in his home country. After the game, Varona expressed the entire thrill of the trip, from seeing his family for the first time since his defection to playing in front of his home crowd. The first pitch of the game was hit to the right of first base by Varona; a high pop-up that resulted in the first out. When asked why he swung at the first pitch, Varona stated that he might as well hit the ball as hard as he could because “it would make it to the Hall of Fame” anyway.
The last visit by a Major League Club to Cuba happened 17 years ago when the Baltimore Orioles played in a Spring Training game. Today’s game showcased something much different. It was filled with a capacity crowd of 55,000, celebrating the “open door” relations between Cuba and the United States, it was a homecoming for Dayron Varona, and it was a game filled with symbolism and exuberance.
Said Ray’s starting pitcher, Matt Moore, “It’s really great, you know, this is something that feels like a very big game back home. … I’ve had the opportunity to be in the playoffs a few times, and this feels like that kind of an event.” Moore, like others were amazed by the entire scene, from the thrill of the game to the political and organizational underlying significance. Baseball may finally be open to Cuba and Cuba to baseball. We might see an influx of Cuban players in the game; players who no longer feel the need to run under cover of night and defect from their home just to achieve a dream of playing in the Major Leagues. Cuban players were also incredibly excited about the opportunities this day brought with Cuban player, Rudy Reyes giving his view of the game, “A lot, this game meant a lot, because of the brotherhood there will be from now on.”
-Notable members of the crowd included Secretary of State, John Kerry, Yankee icon Derek Jeter, Rachel Robinson, widow of the late Jackie Robinson, and Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred.
-Cuban pitcher and 19-year major leaguer, Luis Tiant and former Cuban National player, Pedro Luis Lazo threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Estadio Latinoamericano
-Though there was much excitement over the game, Cuban protestors and dissidents interrupted ESPN’s Bob Ley throwing pamphlets and calling for freedoms