LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez grew up in Miami, he routinely heard his parents glowingly speak of the wonderful memories they had gathered before Fidel Castro's rise to power led them to escape Cuba without any guarantee that they would return to their homeland.Fifty years
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez grew up in Miami, he routinely heard his parents glowingly speak of the wonderful memories they had gathered before Fidel Castro's rise to power led them to escape Cuba without any guarantee that they would return to their homeland.
Fifty years later, the Gonzalez family has never returned to their native land, where the Braves' manager spent the first two years of his life. But their hope to do so has been restored by the recent diplomatic progress that has led President Barack Obama to travel to Cuba this week to meet with government officials and attend Tuesday afternoon's baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team.
"I think it's good for Cuba and I think it's good for baseball," Gonzalez said. "I'm going to watch the game and I'm going to read more than I've ever read about the coverage. Having been born there, I really am excited about the possibility to maybe one day go back to a free Cuba and have the people there be happy."
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The Rays will be the first Major League Baseball team to visit Cuba since 1999, when the Orioles played the Cuban National Team amidst conditions much different than those that will surround this week's contest. Recent diplomatic negotiations have created hope that the United States and Cuba might soon reach agreements that would at least allow travel between the two countries and possibly allow Cuba's top baseball players the freedom to come to U.S. in a safe, less hostile manner.
"This feels like we're heading toward a good thing with Cuba," Gonzalez said. "We've got more players coming out of there, but that is not the number one thing. The number one thing is the people there. I think it's a little different feeling there now.
"I think we're so far removed from where we were 50 years ago, so everybody is a little more open-minded."
Hector Olivera and Adonis Garcia spent a portion of their childhoods together in Cuba, and last year they were reunited as members of the Braves organization. Garcia is certainly looking forward to Tuesday's game, which will create hope for his native country and possibly an opportunity for his brother, Jose, who is one of the top players on the Cuban National Team.
"It was very difficult for me to come [to the United States], because there were a lot of sacrifices that I made, leaving my family and leaving my brother," Garcia said with Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez interpreting. "Now, I feel a little better, because we might reach a point where my brother might leave with no problems. When I left, I left my family and didn't know when I was going to see them again."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.