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Cuban big-leaguers say Rays' visit will benefit everyone

HAVANA — Baltimore outfielder Henry Urrutia has a pretty good idea of what the Rays should expect Tuesday when they become the first big-league team since 1999 to play in Cuba.

That's because Urrutia was there the last time it happened, a 12-year-old boy sitting in the stands at Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano watching an Orioles team he would grow up to play for.

"It was very big and newsworthy back then," Urrutia said. "This game, it is going to be, I think, better than last time because people see this in a different way. Before, in Cuba, a lot of people saw it in a political way. I think now it's different."

With the Rays arriving Sunday for the historic visit, the Tampa Bay Times over the past week, through writers covering other teams, asked a dozen Cuban-born big-leaguers what they thought about the upcoming game.

The consensus?

That regardless of who finishes with more runs, it will be a win-win.

"I think it's a very important step for Cuban baseball," Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes said. "Cuba is obviously a country not as developed as here, but I really think the Tampa Bay Rays are going to enjoy it, and playing in Cuba. And they will enjoy the Cuban fans. …

"It's gonna mean a lot over there, just because we really don't have access to Major League Baseball. Not because the people don't want to see it, but because it is limited. It's going to be great for the people to see Major League Baseball players. It means a lot that they are playing there. A very big step."

From what information the fans can get, they are apparently quite knowledgeable and passionate about the major-leaguers.

When Rays travel director Chris Westmoreland was visiting last month, he went by the famed Hot Corner gathering spot of baseball fans and mentioned the Rays — and an immediate discussion about third baseman Evan Longoria broke out.

"The Cuban fans, they are really nice. They know about baseball, they know about players," said Urrutia, whose father is a manager in the Cuban league and will be at Tuesday's game.

"When you go somewhere, people are going to recognize you. Players are going to be surprised because they're not expecting that. People in Cuba know a lot about baseball. They try to look for any news or anything on the Internet or if you have the chance to see videos, home run derbies, All-Star games. They want to see it all. … Believe me, it's going to be good. They're different fans. Here, the fans know about baseball, too, but they have another vision other than baseball. In Cuba, baseball is life. People are going to be really happy."

The large number of players who have left the island to play in the majors has just served to whet that appetite.

"A lot of people follow Major League Baseball even more now because there are a lot of us outside now, playing at this level," Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena said. "That Tampa (Bay) is going down there to Cuba I'm pretty sure will bring a lot of excitement."

As excited as the Cuban fans will be to get a look at major-league players, their loyalties — with 50,000-plus strong expected at the refurbished stadium — will obviously lie with their countrymen.

"The Rays are a good team, but the Cuban fans will want their own team to win pretty badly," Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo said. "There's a lot of pride in the Cuban team."

"I'm pretty sure they'll be rooting for their team," Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal added. "If (the foe) was a team like the Yankees, who are world-wide known, they'd probably root for both."

Some of the Cuban players contacted said they would like the chance to play again in their native land, as Rays outfielder Dayron Varona will get to do this week.

Noting the effort Major League Baseball is making to alter the system so Cuban players don't have to first defect to be signed, Grandal said he hopes it could lead to even further relaxed rules.

"Obviously, you hope that one day Cubans will have the same system that the Dominican and Venezuela (players) have and all the other countries have, where players come in, play for a season and are able to go back to their hometown," he said. "If this is going to be the start of it, it's a good thing."

No matter what, Oakland's Yonder Alonso said, it should be a good time.

"It will be fun, like a festival, because the last time a team was there was the Orioles, a long time ago (in 1999)," he said. "It's going to be great. The players there are really good players and this game will bring definitely more positive than negative; it will be good for everyone there, the players, the city, the country."

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

Cuba schedule

Today

• Media conferences — Rays, featuring Chris Archer, Evan Longoria, Kevin Cash, Stuart Sternberg; MLB and Cuban baseball officials; Cuban team; Cuban "legends;" MLB special guests, including Derek Jeter

• Team workouts at Estadio Latinoamericano

• Kids clinic staged by Rays coaches, Cuban legends, MLB special guests

• Rays players touring Havana

Tuesday

Rays vs. Cuban National Team, 1:50 p.m., at Estadio Latinoamericano.

TV coverage: ESPN, starting at noon with SportsCenter from site, pregame show at 1:30. Also, streamed on WatchESPN app, in Spanish on ESPNDeportes.

Radio coverage: 620-AM (with Andy Freed, Dave Wills, Neil Solondz), 680-AM in Spanish.

Special delivery: The Rays are bringing boxes of baseball equipment donated by the players, and 50 gift bags for kids, prepared by C Rene Rivera and his wife, Mariel Perez, of toiletries and supplies.

Follow our coverage in the Tampa Bay Times, online at tampabay.com, on Twitter @TBTimes_Rays and @willvrag with the hashtag #RaysInCuba, on Facebook and Instagram

No first pitch for presidents

HAVANA — Major League Baseball took the politics out of the first pitch for the Rays' Tuesday exhibition.

Rather than involving U.S. President Barack Obama or Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, MLB said the honors will be shared by famous Cuban pitchers Pedro Laza, who starred for the national team, and Luis Tiant, who was a three-time All-Star in the majors.

MLB also finalized umpiring assignments, with two members of the six-man crew being Angel Hernandez, a Havana native, working first base and Laz Diaz third. Cuban ump Elber Ibarra will work the plate; Hernandez was officially said to have that duty.

Rays officials will spread goodwill and their brands, bringing several cases of team items — bracelets for kids, hats, T-shirts — they plan to give out. Players donated boxes of baseball equipment.

Marc Topkin, Times staff writer

Cuban big-leaguers say Rays' visit will benefit everyone 03/20/16 [Last modified: Sunday, March 20, 2016 11:56pm]
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