PORT CHARLOTTE — The opportunity to be the first major-league team to play in Cuba since 1999 is exciting enough for the Rays. The chance to play even a small part in normalizing relations between the United States and the island nation could really make the trip something special.
Major League Baseball on Tuesday made official what has been in the works for months: a March 22 exhibition between the Rays and the Cuban national team at Havana's 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano.
"We're extremely excited as a group to be a part of this process," Rays ace and player rep Chris Archer said. "In a sense, we're part of something that is extremely historic for both countries."
Not all details have been announced. The Rays are expected to head to Cuba in two groups on March 20, have an optional workout while participating in a clinic and possibly other community/goodwill events on March 21, then play an afternoon game on March 22, which will be televised by ESPN and ESPN Deportes, and fly back to Tampa.
"For us, it's about spreading goodwill through baseball," Rays baseball operations president Matt Silverman said. "We're excited for the opportunity and to experience firsthand the baseball culture of Cuba."
President Barack Obama, making a historic trip of his own as the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years, is slated to attend the game, possibly throwing out a first pitch. Other politicians are expected, including a dozen U.S. senators and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn will not go, consistent with his longstanding political position.
The trip, less than two weeks before opening day, will cause some logistical and scheduling hassles for the Rays, such as making sure their pitchers get enough work. Silverman said preparation for the season will be a priority, including deciding which players will be in the small group, believed to be 28, who are allowed to go. Players have the choice of whether they want to be considered; those who do go get a $10,000 stipend from MLB, which will cover some but not all of the team's expenses.
Silverman said they will talk to the one Cuban player they have in camp, outfielder Dayron Varona, to see if he wants to go.
"I don't think it's going to be a distraction at all," Archer said. "It's going to be a little abnormal."
Principal owner Stuart Sternberg said it will be worth it for the experience and the exposure.
"It can only be good for our franchise," he said. "We're going to have a lot of national attention. While everybody is looking at it as a little bit of a pain, we're going to be kind of psyched that we did it. We're going to be able to get our brand out there."
Both commissioner Rob Manfred and players union chief Tony Clark said in statements they appreciated baseball getting to play a role in the political process and acknowledged the history and passion of the Cuban fans.
Archer said the players are looking forward to experiencing that passion, as well as the chance to "mingle and experience the culture" on the island.
"We may look back 30 years from now when things are totally different between the two sides and say, 'You know what, we were a large part in some changes that went on,' " Archer said.