Historic day in Cuba filled with thrills

March 22nd, 2016

HAVANA -- On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro made history. The two dignitaries exchanged pleasantries, joined the packed stadium for a moment of silence for the victims in Tuesday's tragic terrorist attack in Belgium, and took in a ballgame between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team at iconic Estadio Latinoamericano, Havana's most famous stadium, as the world watched. No sitting U.S. president has visited Cuba since Calvin Coolidge 88 years ago, and the significance of this moment was lost on no one.

Baseball is more than just a game when it becomes a bridge between two countries, and this week, Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation did their part to bring the two parties together nine innings at a time. The ultimate goal for MLB this week in Cuba was to spotlight the need for a system in which Cuban players can come to the United States more freely, and work toward a system that would be beneficial to both parties.

:: Complete coverage: Historic Cuba visit ::

"You've heard it said over and over again the last couple of days, that sport can form sort of a foundation of people making relationships and trying to move forward," Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said in an in-game interview with ESPN. "Over the longer haul, if we could get to a regularization of relations, that baseball could be significant in terms of driving the economy and development here in Cuba."

With those issues as a backdrop, the Rays defeated the Cuban national team, 4-1, on Tuesday afternoon in front of a capacity crowd at the 55,000-seat stadium. The game was filled with highlights, beginning with Rays outfielder and leadoff man Dayron Varona becoming the first player to defect from Cuba and then return to play a game there. He popped out on the first pitch, saying that he swung so aggressively because he knew the ball was going to the Hall of Fame.

Varona was taken out of the game in the third inning and given a nice ovation by the crowd.

James Loney's two-run homer in the fourth inning would give the Rays all the runs they would need, and a ninth-inning home run by Cuban outfielder Rudy Reyes off Alex Colome prevented the shutout.

But for all the thrills of the game, it was the pregame ceremony that really brought out the emotion. It was impossible to not see Antonio Castro, Fidel Castro's son and vice president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, who watched in awe from his front-row seat as his uncle Raul and President Obama shook hands. The younger Castro recorded the exchange with his cellphone video camera.

"In the future, for sure we hope to have a good relationship, a better relationship," Antonio Castro said. "We work very hard in agreement with Major League Baseball. It's complicated, everybody knows, but we hope in the future we live in a normal life."

The crowd at Estadio Latinoamericano applauded when Obama arrived, and they cheered him as he departed in the third inning. Every player on the Cuban roster jogged to the area behind home plate and doffed their caps as a measure of respect for Castro and Obama.

During an interview conducted during the broadcast, Obama was asked if he reconsidered attending in light of the terrorist attacks in Brussels earlier in the day, and he used a previous baseball experience to explain why he didn't alter his plans.

"You want to be respectful and understand the gravity of the situation," Obama said. "But the whole premise of terrorism is to try to disrupt people's ordinary lives. One of my most powerful memories and one of my proudest moments as president was watching Boston respond after the marathon.

"And when [David Ortiz] went out and said -- probably about the only time America didn't have a problem with someone cursing on live TV was when he talked about Boston and how strong it was and how it was not going to be intimidated, and that is the kind of resilience and the kind of strength we have to continue to show in the face of these terrorists."

It wasn't just the United States that brought star power to the event. Pedro Luis Lazo, a longtime standout for the Cuban national team who was the losing pitcher in the gold medal game at the 2000 Olympics against the United States, and Luis Tiant, a three-time All-Star during his 19-year Major League career, threw out the ceremonial first pitch to send the energetic crown into a frenzy.

Loud chants of "Lazo! Lazo! Lazo!" replaced the chants of "Cuba! Cuba! Cuba!" if only for a moment. The fans at Estadio Latinoamericano didn't start sitting down in their seats until midway through the game.

It was Derek Jeter who was among the first to greet President Obama when the president arrived with his family at his seats. Obama shook hands with Manfred and Hall of Famer Dave Winfield and greeted Rachel Robinson, the widow of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson.

"This is the first time I've watched a game from the stands," Jeter said. "I've been back to Yankee Stadium a few times when they retired my teammates' numbers, but I haven't actually sat down and watched a game. It's kind of fun to do it in person."

Rays pitcher Chris Archer fulfilled a lifelong dream and met the president through the netting behind home plate.

"He told me he appreciated how thoughtful I was in speaking about our opportunity to be here and just in general," Archer said of the president. "It's probably the highest compliment I've had in my life. He wasn't just appreciative of my ability but of the way I spoke and carried myself. I've never had a higher compliment."

How this week's visit impacts relations between the two countries is to be determined. This much is certain: Because of the U.S. embargo, any defector who wanted to do business with an American company must have first established residency outside Cuba and the United States. The embargo will remain in place until issues such as democratic relations, human rights, property and claim issues in Cuba are resolved, although President Obama has the authority to issue licenses to businesses even with the embargo in place.

"When I think about the embargo, I think, I hope, I am smart enough to realize that there are much larger issues in play with respect to removing the embargo than just baseball's issues, and I do believe it is possible to make an agreement and progress on baseball's issues, even if the embargo stays in place for some period of time," Manfred told ESPN. "So I do definitely fall in the latter category, and we're going to proceed along those lines."

For its part, MLB has proposed the creation of a new license and a new system to the U.S. government that will allow players from Cuba to enter the United States on a visa. Additional regulations and clarification are expected in the future and could include making a case for baseball.

"I think it's very important for us to get back with the Cuban Baseball Federation and with the officials that we've been working with in Washington to see if we can nail down an agreement on player movement," Manfred said. "I think the key for us is to get out of a situation where we have human trafficking and people taking risks that simply are not acceptable to us. That will be our priority when we get back to the United States [on Wednesday]."