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In Cuba, Rays baseball builds relationships, memories

HAVANA

The Rays headed home after their Tuesday afternoon date with the Cuban National Team at Estadio Latinoamericano, saying it would take a few days — if not months or years — to fully appreciate the significance of their role in history.

They certainly have plenty to talk about.

A 4-1 win that silenced what had been a festive crowd made a successful trip even more memorable.

Consider:

• They greeted and presented team gifts to President Barack Obama, who was sitting behind home plate with his wife and daughters, and next to Cuban President Raul Castro, before Obama left in the third inning.

• They were welcomed warmly and raved about their tremendous time exploring Havana's hot spots and experiencing the Cuban culture, including a memorable Monday night reception featuring Jimmy Buffett.

• They shared in the emotional return of Cuban-born teammate Dayron Varona and his reunion with family members.

• And they won a game that was considered a matter of national pride for the Cubans, with James Loney driving in the first three runs and Matt Moore working six shutout innings.

•••

The pomp and the circumstance were extraordinary, the Rays being the first major-league team to play in Cuba since the Orioles in 1999, and at the same time Obama was making his own historic visit as part of his ongoing efforts to normalize relations between the countries. Security was understandably extensive, with agents visible on top of the scoreboard and a nearby apartment building.

Obama and Castro arrived shortly before 2 p.m. to loud applause — ending an awkward anticipatory silence that had lasted about 20 minutes — and were seated next to each other and with an eclectic mix of dignitaries including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry; Rachel Robinson, widow of barrier-breaking Jackie; and Derek Jeter, the former Yankees star and Tampa retiree.

The pre-game ceremony was a bit different, with players for both teams introduced with small rose-carrying kids they carried around and then off the field as doves were released.

"I had to fight some tears," Rays pitcher Chris Archer said. "It was emotional."

There was also a moment of silence for the Brussels bombing victims, renditions of both anthems by the Cuban National Choir and a first-pitch ceremony with Evan Longoria catching the toss from Cuban star Pedro Laza while the Cuban catcher was paired with former major-league star Luis Tiant.

With that done, the Cuban players filed out of their dugout in a line and went behind the plate to quickly greet Castro.

Then the Rays formed an impromptu group sparked by Taylor Motter to welcome Obama, and they came bearing gifts.

Archer, who had been trying to tweet his way into a lunch date, presented the president with starter Matt Moore's extra glove since Moore was warming up.

And he left with high praise.

"It was awesome," Archer said. "He complimented not only my ability but the way I carry myself and the way that I speak. Coming from him, there really is no higher compliment."

Archer also had a few words with first lady Michelle Obama, joking that he chided her for also ignoring his Twitter invite but saying that he volunteered to help her youth initiatives.

Motter started the parade out of the dugout by asking if they could give the white roses held by the kids to the first lady. He took one for Mrs. Obama, Steven Souza Jr. and Logan Morrison grabbed one for each daughter, and the rest of the team followed.

"I was kind of nervous," Motter said.

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg did his part next, strategically placing a No. 44 Rays jersey for Obama — the 44th president — on the seat he was to use for an ESPN interview. Obama, a big White Sox fan, joked, "As long as he doesn't make me wear it back in Chicago I'll be okay."

•••

Varona's return was one of the endearing highlights. He left Cuba in 2015 on a boat with his mom and didn't know when, or if, he would see other relatives again. He had an emotional reunion with them in the hotel lobby Sunday night and was a center of attention with a series of interviews Monday.

The Rays not only brought him to Cuba, but also put him in the starting lineup in right field and at the top of the order so the game started with Varona. The crowd, which was by invitation only, applauded him upon his introduction and before each of his two at-bats.

"That was something really special," Varona said through Rays interpreter George Pappas. "That gave me a lot of satisfaction."

The Rays let Varona play into the third when, in a plan suggested by starting rightfielder Steven Souza Jr., they called time so he could leave the field to another round of applause.

The trip back, Varona said. "was something very special that left a lasting impression."

That included a chance to meet Obama — "I hope somebody took a photo," he said — and to experience the pride and passion of the Cuban fans again.

"That I made my decision (to leave) does not mean to say that I'm no longer allowed to be Cuban," Varona said. "I'm Cuban in the United States . . . wherever. I'm Cuban."

•••

Rays players and staff were still buzzing Tuesday about what a great experience they had during their quick visit. That included touring the city and enjoying a tremendous Monday night reception that featured Cuban rum and hand-rolled cigars, plus a display of classic cars and a performance by Buffett.

"That was unbelievable," manager Kevin Cash said. "When you have people who've been in the game 15-20 years talk about (Monday) as top five night for them, I think that kinds of explains what took place."

They also appreciated the way they were received Tuesday by the bulk of the fans, even though allegiances to the home team were obvious. Reliever Steve Geltz was among those engaging them, and several Rays tossed balls or T-shirts to the crowd.

They had several pockets of their own fans, from members of the ownership group and sponsors to the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership group to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred met with Rays players before they took batting practice and basically thanked them for making the trip.

"Spring training is a routine time for players and I know this breaks up their routine," Manfred said. "I told them I appreciated them making the effort to come here and I thanked them for being great ambassadors for the game. The entire Rays organization could not have been better, from Stu Sternberg right down through the players. Could not have been better. And I told them how important I think things like this were for the game."

•••

The scene at Estadio Latinoamericano was hectic and frenzied starting early in the morning.

But the Rays took much of the fun out of it for the crowd. They took a 1-0 lead in the second on a single by James Loney that scored hustling Kevin Kiermaier. They added to their lead with a two-run homer by Loney in the fourth and an RBI single by Steve Pearce in the seventh.

Overall, the Rays raved about the experience despite the inherent hassles.

"When we amortize all the work and expenses over the many smiles and happiness for our fans, including the ones that watched on TV," Sternberg said, "It really was one of the best things our franchise has ever done."

After the game, the Rays exchanged jerseys with their Cuban counterparts. As Archer said, "We wanted a piece of authentic Cuban baseball."

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

In Cuba, Rays baseball builds relationships, memories 03/22/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 22, 2016 11:35pm]
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