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Cuban immigrants in Tampa view Tampa Bay Rays game as bridge to better relations

TAMPA — Standing in his small bar in Ybor City, Orlando Rodriguez Manduley took a break Tuesday from stocking cigars to focus on the television screen.

He watched ESPN as, one by one, members of the Cuban National Team walked onto the field at Estadio Latinoamericano. He was taut with anticipation as he waited for a particular number to flash across the bottom of the screen.

When Yordan Manduley's face appeared, smiling under his red cap and sporting a No. 42 jersey, the bar owner clapped and pointed as the shortstop looked at the camera.

"He's my cousin," Manduley, 51, said through an interpreter. "He's a great player."

As Cuban people packed the stands in Havana to watch their national team take on the Tampa Bay Rays, pockets of Cuban transplants around Tampa huddled around TVs.

For people such as Manduley and his co-workers or the small group of friends that watched at a Cuban market on N Armenia Avenue, the game had a big meaning. A hope, they said, that relations between the United States and the island nation would continue to improve.

Manduley moved to the United States in 2007. Shortly after, he started running his Cuban bar, Ybor Cigars Plus. He's a Havana native. He said his daughter, 27, who is still there, was sitting in the stands.

When the Cuban national anthem started to play before the game started, Yanelys Garcia Hijuelos yelled out every word. Hijuelos, 31, moved to the United States from Cuba in 2005.

While the camera panned the crowd, she happily chatted with Manduley.

"Look at all the Cubans," she said to him in Spanish, before commenting on how much she liked first lady Michelle Obama's dress.

Like Manduley, she viewed the game as a possible bridge to better relations.

"Baseball is like one language," she said through an interpreter.

Manduley had to split his time between the game and customers coming to pick up cigars. But his eyes were on the TV whenever his cousin came up to bat, and he cheered loudly when his relative rapped out two hits.

Ten minutes away in West Tampa, a group of four hung in the back of La Loma Market on N Armenia Avenue. They stood near the deli display and watched the game on a small TV.

Rolando Rodriguez, 57, sat on stacked bags of rice. For 15 years he, like many other Cubans in Tampa, have been going to the market. He gets his coffee there most days, so he knew it's where he'd want to watch the game.

He moved to the United States from Havana in 1980. He got married here and now has four children. He's a baseball fan who usually roots for the Yankees.

He wouldn't comment much on how the Cuban team played Tuesday. (The Rays wound up winning 4-1.) But Rodriguez didn't think the score should matter.

Tuesday was about "two cultures relating to each other" to form a relationship, he said, which there hadn't been for "many years."

He called it "a game of friendship."

Times Now Desk editor Josie Hollingsworth contributed to this story. Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.

Cuban immigrants in Tampa view Tampa Bay Rays game as bridge to better relations 03/22/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 23, 2016 5:02pm]
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