HAVANA, Cuba -- Major League Baseball (MLB) brought the Tampa Bay Rays to Cuba for a battle against the Cuban National Team at Estadio Latinoamericano (Latin American Stadium), which the Rays won, 4-1. It was the first time since 1999 that an Major League Baseball team came to Cuba for a game.
In the game, Dayron Varona became the first professional Cuban player to defect from Cuba to the United States and return to play a game in Cuba. Varona started in right field and hit leadoff for the Rays. The 28-year-old, who defected three years ago, finished 0-for-2 and got a standing ovation at the start and finish of his time on the field. During eight seasons and 412 games in the Cuban National Series (CNS), the 28-year-old hit .312/.375/.469 with 38 homers and 198 RBI.
The Rays got the party started in the top of the second inning. James Loney singled on a ground ball through the hole into right field to score Kevin Kiermaier to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead over Cuba.
For Cuba, Yosvani Torres toed the slab to start, but ended up taking the loss. Torres, a 35-year-old right-handed pitcher, gave up one run on two hits and two walks through 2.2 innings with two strikeouts. The pitcher has played in 220 games across 12 seasons in the Cuban National Series. Matt Moore tossed 82 pitches (54 strikes) on Tuesday against the Cuban National Team. Moore, who got the start and the win, threw 6.0 innings of scoreless baseball, but he gave up six hits and a walk.
Loney stayed hot with a two-run home run off Livan Moinelo scoring Desmond Jennings in the top of the fourth inning to take a 3-0 lead.
Last but not least for Tampa Bay, Steve Pearce, the replacement for Loney, sent an RBI-single to left field off Miguel Lahera to score Mikie Mahtook for a 4-0 lead in the top of the seventh inning.
Cuba finally got on the scoreboard in the bottom of the ninth inning as Rudy Reyes hit a home run on a line drive to left field off relief pitcher Alex Colome, who gave up a double after the homer, but eventually shut the door on Cuba to finalize the 4-1 victory for Tampa Bay.
Believe it or not, United States President Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro attended the game and sat together for the historical event. Raul's brother, Fidel Castro, who led the revolution in 1959 to defeat the Batista regime, was not in attendance, but his son, Tony Castro, made remarks prior to the first pitch being tossed.
“I think (Fidel) is happy too. It’s a baseball game between two teams — it’s amazing for both countries,” Tony Castro, the VP of the Cuban Baseball Federation said. “It’s amazing for the (fans). Seventeen years is too much (since the last MLB team came to Cuba). We need to continue to do that more frequently. Baseball is so important to the Cuban people.”
“For 50 years, we had no contact with this country. It was not serving our ultimate goal, which is freedom and opportunity for the Cuban people. If our ideas and our culture (are) penetrating this society, over time that gives us more leverage to advocate for the values that we care about,” President Obama said. “My view has been that if you do something for 50 years and it doesn’t work, you’ve got to try something else.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Joe Torre, retired Yankee captain Derek Jeter, Players Association chief Tony Clark and former Cuban major leaguers Luis Tiant and Jose Cardenal appeared at the game among about 50,000 people to support the United States and Cuba coming together for a greater good.
After the game, players from Cuba and the United States exchanged jerseys to pay respect to each other. The Rays represented the Major League Baseball well during the two day voyage to Cuba.
If all goes well, the Major League Baseball and Cuba could allow players born in Cuba in Major League Baseball to play in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and visit family members. Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred made remarks of creating an Major League Baseball team in Cuba, Canada, Mexico or another foreign country sometime in the future. Manfred also is hoping to create an international player draft that would allow players to come to America with ease.
“I think sooner or later, baseball is going to get to a situation where players enter the game the same way,” Manfred said. He also mentioned that one of the goals for this Cuba trip was for baseball to “push (the player movement) process along.”
How fun would that be?