PORT CHARLOTTE — In discussing next week's historic trip to Cuba, most Rays have veered away from the political aspects, beyond touting the goodwill nature of the rare visit as a form of baseball diplomacy in the improving relations between the United States and the nearby island nation.
But All-Star ace Chris Archer, one of the more thoughtful Rays, is hoping the three-day visit generates more meaningful implications, and potential changes, to the Cuban style of government under the Castros.
"Hopefully us going there is a political statement for their leaders," Archer said Tuesday. "Hopefully it opens their leaders' eyes to what is possible for their nation. Not from a sports perspective, but if they choose to change their ways what can be afforded to their country.
"The baseball element will be cool. Being around the fans and the people for that amount of time will be a great experience. But hopefully it has a lasting impact on their country as a whole, on a deeper level than sports."
Specifically, Archer said, "Changing their policies on how they treat their people. They might open their doors, but if they don't change their policies they are not going to be awarded all the benefits."
The Rays will get a first-hand look during the three-day visit, which starts Sunday and culminates with a 2 p.m. Tuesday exhibition against the Cuban National Team, with Matt Moore the starting pitcher.
And Tuesday they made official what seemed likely, that Cuban-born outfielder Dayron Varona would be included on their 34-player travel roster and get to return home for the first time since leaving on a boat with his mother in 2013 to start his pro career. Varona is the only player not on the 40-man roster selected to go.
"Obviously this is a really special opportunity for me," Varona said through team interpreter George Pappas. "Clearly, it's been difficult to have been away from my homeland for as long as I have been. So I'm really looking forward to this special opportunity and thankful."
The Rays were likely to bring Varona, who spent most of last season at Double-A Montgomery, anyway, but it became even more clear when Archer, Evan Longoria and others lobbied team officials to include him. Manager Kevin Cash said that spoke volumes.
"It means the world to me that they did that," Varona said. "This is really the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to return to my homeland."
As a result, Varona, 28, will get an unexpected chance to see his sister, aunt, niece and goddaughter. Also, to play again in front of the Cuban fans, who are expected to pack Estadio Latinoamericano.
"With respect to the Cuban people, I hope they see me as a fellow Cuban," he said. "I hope they give me applause and receive me well, like they would for their countrymen."
Moore said he was excited about the opportunity to start the game, which will be the first appearance by a big-league team on this island since 1999.
"I'm sure there's going to be a lot of excitement around the game," Moore said. "I think it's really cool to be a part of it and get to pitch."
Though beating a major-league team would be considered a significant accomplishment for the Cubans, Moore said the Rays won't see it as an intense competition and that their goal is to "put our best foot forward to win" but also to be "still trying to get ourselves in shape for the season" during the trip.
"I would assume this is a friendly, as they say in soccer," he said. "I don't think we're wanting to be, 'Hey let's go take it to them,' any more than any other opponent that we step on the field with."
From the pool of 32 healthy players (plus injured pitchers Alex Cobb and Chase Whitley), Cash said they will designate an active roster of 28, including eight or nine pitchers. Two big-leaguers not going are pitchers Jake Odorizzi, who will work in a minor-league game in Port Charlotte on Monday to stay on his throwing schedule, and Erasmo Ramirez, who is slated for action March 23.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.