Baseball en La Habana
On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Rays made a historic trip to Havana to play an exhibition game against the Cuban National Baseball Team. The game was the grand finale of a short trip during which President Obama met with Raúl Castro and talked about re-involving the United States in Cuban affairs. The Tampa Bay Rays were just the 2nd team in 60 years to play a game in Cuba, and the first to do so since the Baltimore Orioles played in Havana in March of 1999.
The opening ceremonies for the game were prolific. It all started with President Obama entering the stadium to a tremendous roar and a standing ovation. He shook the hands of many members of the audience as he made his way through the crowd to his seat, just left of home plate, where Raúl Castro sat. After the crowd had calmed down, every player, both on the Rays and on the Cuban National Team, came out as the line-ups for their teams were announced. Each player came on to the field holding the hand of a young Cuban child who carried a white rose. Both countries' national anthems were then sung by a choir dressed in all white. Soon after, all of the Cuban players went to shake the hand of Raúl Castro, which is a tradition in Cuba. Next, they saluted President Obama and ventured back into their dugout. Upon their entrance, the Rays saluted Castro and shook the hand of President Obama. Rays pitcher Chris Archer stayed behind a little to chat with both the President and Michelle Obama, an experience he described as “better than just a once in a lifetime opportunity." After all was said and done, white pigeons were released and flew around the stadium, which ESPN analyst Karl Ravech claimed must have been “the Cuban version of a flyover." The history did not end there, however.
The first batter for the Tampa Bay Rays was outfielder Dayron Varona, a rookie this year who fled from Cuba three years ago, and who is officially the first baseball player ever to defect from Cuba and then return to play there. Upon the announcement of his name, every Rays player leaped out of the dugout to give him a round of applause, acknowledging that this was not an easy trip for Varona. Not only that, but when the Rays flight had landed a couple days prior, Varona was greeted at the airport by his family, whom he had not seen since he defected from Cuba three years ago. According to Sports Illustrated, Varona was not even supposed to make the trip to Cuba since he is not officially on the Rays 40-man roster, but team captains, Evan Longoria and Chris Archer, pushed the team to allow him to make the trip.
Varona stepped up to the plate, shook the catcher’s hand, and immediately popped the first pitch out to 2nd base. Every Rays player either hugged, high-fived, or saluted Varona upon his return to the dugout. Keep in mind, this is not something that happens often after a pop-out in baseball. This moment was different—almost like the end of a story for Varona. He had returned to Cuba, now as a free man.
The game ended with the Rays beating the Cuban National team by a score of 4-1, but the score of the game itself almost seems insignificant in comparison to the meaning behind the game. Cuba has produced some of baseball’s best players, all of whom have had to flee their homes and be granted asylum in the US. However, the MLB’s connection to Cuba dates back even further than that, and it even involves one of the game’s most memorable players of all time.
Beginning in the 1900s, the Dodgers would occasionally play exhibition games in Cuba, which made them particularly popular in the country. So, in 1947, Dodgers president Branch Rickey took the team down to Havana for training camp because it was much quieter than Florida, where the team usually held camp. The Dodgers were joined in Havana by the Montreal Royals, an international league team. By April 10th, the Dodgers had purchased the contract of one of the Royals players… Jackie Robinson. Robinson would break the color barrier five days later, on opening day, against the Boston Braves.
Cuba has a special place in baseball history, from Robinson to Yaisel Puig, and all of the other recent Cuban superstars. Yet, the country has not opened its borders for people to freely leave for more than half a century. These players had to endure an unbelievable amount of suffering just to pursue their dreams of becoming baseball players, so maybe it is time to open the borders. So much can come from this exhibition game between the Rays and the Cuban National Team, and I hope it does. But for now, things still remain up in the air, and Opening Day is right around the corner.
Photo Courtesy of the Daily Herald