MLB stars in Cuba: 'To be here ... is amazing'
Defectors reunite with loved ones on goodwill tour
HAVANA -- The phone in Brayan Pena's hotel room rang at 5 a.m. sharp on Tuesday, a few hours before sunrise. It was Jose Abreu.
"Are you up?" Abreu asked. "I can't sleep. Call Alexei [Ramirez] and see if he's up."
Ramirez was wide awake when his phone rang.
"Call [Yasiel] Puig," Ramirez immediately said.
For the Cubans, it was a long and sleepless night. They fidgeted. They stared at the ceiling. They tried to imagine what it would be like to return home as baseball heroes.
By 11 a.m., the fantasies became reality when their charter plane touched down in Cuba. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, Seattle's Nelson Cruz and San Diego's Jon Jay also joined the goodwill tour to Cuba organized by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association.
"I've been dreaming of this for a long time, having not been in my homeland for almost 20 years," Pena said. "To have the opportunity to go back to my roots and my homeland is something I am very grateful for. I'm so proud that I'm able to share my experiences with my family. I still can't believe it."
Pena, accompanied on the trip by his older brother Emerson, was greeted at the Hotel Nacional -- located about 15 minutes from where he grew up -- by 25 family members. Pena promised not to tear up upon seeing his extended family, but he could not keep his word when he saw them gathered in the courtyard. Pena's parents and siblings live in the United States.
"This is just incredible," Pena said. "To be here right now at this moment is something I cannot believe is happening. To be here with these guys and have great men like Clayton Kershaw, Nelson Cruz and Miguel Cabrera take time out to show support and help the kids on the island shows their character. These guys are not Cuban but they care about people, and they are showing who they really are."
Puig was accompanied on the trip by his father, Omar, and the Dodgers outfielder embraced an old friend in the hotel lobby, the mentor he affectionately refers to as "Tata," and it looked like he didn't want to let go. Puig later posed for photos with hundreds of fans and charmed the local media with jokes.
Jay, whose parents and grandparents were born in Cuba, put his hands on his hips, and took a deep breath. He was in awe.
"This is surreal," Jay said. "It's been a dream of mine to come here for a long time, and to be here and spread the love of the game is something I'll never forget. The culture I grew up in Miami is derivative of Cuba, so I have those customs and traditions. To be here where it all started is amazing."
It was Ramirez, who visited Cuba four weeks ago for the first time in eight years, who looked the most comfortable. He walked proud with his head held high, shook hands and posed for photos. The infielder smiled from ear to ear. He can get used to this.
"Well, at first I was really nervous. Really nervous," Ramirez said. "I had no idea how I was going to react. But when I saw my family, everything changed, because it had been eight years since we had been together. In that moment, time stopped."
Cabrera mingled with the fans. Kershaw walked through the lobby with his glove in hand, determined to play catch somewhere near the hotel.
The goodwill tour opened with a news conference Tuesday at Hotel Nacional. Children's clinics were scheduled at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana and Estadio Victoria de Giron in Matanzas on Wednesday and Thursday. There's also a charity event in conjunction with Caritas Cubana, a U.S.-based nongovernmental provider of humanitarian, social and emergency services to the island.
"Obviously for these guys that were born there, it's one of their first times back. I can't imagine the emotions they're going through, just for the people to see [family] again," Kershaw said. "They're huge superstars. So for people to see that, I can't even imagine. But it's cool to see it, and it's cool to be a part of. I'm hoping that I can understand it more in the next few days."
The biggest reunion of the day was the last. It was also the most private. Around 5 p.m., Abreu snuck away from the pack and saw his young son Darielito for the first time in almost three years.
"It's hard to describe what I'm feeling," Abreu said. "There's an excitement and anxiousness in my stomach. I've never felt this before, but it's good. It's good to be back."