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Cuba visit sending Rays to a world out of time

The flights from Tampa will take barely an hour, but when the Rays reassemble tonight in Cuba, they will be a world away.

"I really don't know what to expect over there," centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "All I know is that it's going to be totally different from what we have going on over here."

Through months of myriad meetings, extensive email chains and multiparty arrangements involving Major League Baseball and the United States and Cuban governments, the three-day trip, which culminates with Tuesday's exhibition against the Cuban National Team, is set up to be as seamless, and as little disruption to their preparation for the regular season, as possible.

The Rays are staying at one of Havana's most plush hotels, will have transportation and security provided and will play on an Estadio Latinoamericano field extensively renovated just for them.

"A once-in-a-lifetime experience," first baseman James Loney said.

When they do venture out, the Rays will find themselves in a country that it appears time forgot, with buildings and cars — and some other more human reminders, such as living conditions and wages — that haven't been upgraded much since the Castro regime took over in the 1959 revolution.

"I've heard it's very old school, like the taxis are '57 Chevys, so I'm really looking forward to that," Kiermaier said. "I enjoy being old school and seeing how people lived before I was on this Earth."

With President Barack Obama — who is also arriving today for a historic visit of his own — leading the way, the United States has relaxed many of the travel and business restrictions that had been in place under a long-standing embargo.

That could soon lead to an Americanization of the island, such as Starbucks and Marriotts on every corner, meaning the Rays could be getting one of the last glimpses of Cuba how it has been.

"Once relations become a little bit better between the U.S. and Cuba, it might be a place where the landscape changes, where it might get a little developed and might have some skyscrapers," first baseman/DH Logan Morrison said. "So it will be cool to see it before that happens."

Rays players and staff have different itineraries in mind, some as part of scheduled tours Monday and some on their own.

Manager Kevin Cash, for example, plans to check out the famous Hot Corner spot in Havana's Parque Central, where fans gather all day just to talk baseball. Third baseman Evan Longoria — a serious foodie — wants to sample the cuisine and visit a cigar factory and a beach. Bench coach Tom Foley, like Kiermaier, aims to scope out many of the old cars. Pitcher Chris Archer hopes to head into a neighborhood to mingle and play stickball with some kids.

"I'm hoping that once we get there, people understand the significance of the trip and are willing to maybe step outside of their comfort zone and see something that not many Americans have ever gotten the chance to see," said Archer, who is also hoping to meet Obama and do an inning on the ESPN broadcast.

As much as the Rays are trying to steer clear of the political issues, their visit is, at the least, a form of baseball diplomacy encouraged, if not orchestrated, by Obama and certain to draw both praise and protests. Archer said last week that he hopes the visit proves eye-opening to the Cuban leaders to the benefits of change, specifically "their policies on how they treat their people."

As the first big-league team to play on the island since the Orioles in 1999, the Rays figure to be well-received — and better known than they might think — by the rabid Cuban baseball fans.

"The one thing I do know is that they are passionate about baseball over there," Longoria said. "That's kind of the whole thing for us. We know we are going into an experience that is going to be life-altering and life-changing because of the excitement level of the people over there for what we are going to do.

"If it was some other kind of trip where there was no baseball involved, it might be different. But I think baseball is so big over there and so important to the culture that no matter what, it's going to be a great trip for us."

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

Cuba visit sending Rays to a world out of time 03/19/16 [Last modified: Saturday, March 19, 2016 11:23pm]
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