Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays in Cuba: Fast facts about the historic trip

The details

Today

Arrival in Havana: staff/media/sponsors midday; players/coaches tonight (145 total).

Monday

• 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

On Rolando Arrojo

One of the most interested observers of Tuesday's game will be Rolando Arrojo.

Before Arrojo earned a place in Rays franchise history as its first All-Star, he was its first Cuban player, signed for a $7 million bonus after defecting in 1996 and settling into St. Petersburg, where he still lives.

Arrojo had hoped to accompany the Rays this week, but details couldn't be worked out, so he will be watching intently on TV, well aware of how much the game will mean to the Cuban fans.

"It's not important who wins, seeing is what is most important," Arrojo said through Times interpreter Karen Mathews. "The quality of the Rays players is superior to the quality of players in Cuba, so it's going to be really huge down there for the fans to see (Evan) Longoria and the big stars."

Making the event even more interesting for Arrojo — who still follows Cuban baseball and was featured in a recent article on the Cuban baseball website pelotacubanablog.com — is that it will be played at Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano, where he played his final game on the island.

"I want to watch it and see the stadium and everything," he said.

Arrojo, 47 now, said he is doing well. Though he still recalls the personal and professional challenges he faced — such as learning how to communicate in English, what foods to eat and how to drive — the move from the restricted living conditions in Cuba to the freedom and fortune he enjoyed in the States was obviously a good one.

It was even more so because his wife and two sons, and later his mother, brother and other relatives, were able to eventually join him in Florida. Plus, he and Mayda had a daughter who was born here.

Arrojo pitched one year for the Class A St. Petersburg minor-league team then two for the Devil Rays before being traded to Colorado then on to Boston, retiring after a short stint with the Yankees' Triple-A team in 2003.

He dabbled in the restaurant business but is now working as an instructor at the All-Star Sports academy in St. Petersburg and with a group of Cuban pitchers in Tampa, hoping for the chance to get back into pro ball as a coach, even better with the Rays.

"That's what I would like to do," he said.

On Dayron Varona

As much as the Cuban fans want to see major-league stars such as Chris Archer, Evan Longoria and Kevin Kiermaier, the Ray who figures to get the most attention in Cuba is likely to be the only one who has yet to play in the majors.

But that's because he is one of their own.

Outfielder Dayron Varona, who left Cuba on a boat in 2013 to pursue a career in pro ball, will get to make an unexpected return, having signed with the Rays last May and spending most of the season at Double-A Montgomery.

"I'm pretty lucky, the circumstances, that I'm here with this organization and they had the chance to go," Varona said through team interpreter George Pappas. "They're giving me the chance, so it's not surprising in that sense that (so many reporters) want to talk to me about it."

Varona, expected to be in the Rays' starting lineup Tuesday, has been doing a steady stream of interviews all week, will have a CNN crew waiting for him tonight at the hotel when he reunites with his family and will be mobbed again Monday in an informal availability after the team workout.

On the O's playing there in 1999

That the Rays will be the first major-league team to play in Cuba in 17 years is a big deal.

That the Orioles did so in 1999 — as the first big-league team since the Castro regime took over in 1959 — was an even bigger one.

"It was incredible, to say the least, for me personally," said Mike Bordick, who batted second and played short for the Orioles in the March 28 game. "And I think everybody felt the same way.

"I enjoyed every minute of it. The culture, the scene, the old cars, things you'd only seen in magazines. … And the baseball game itself was great, too."

The O's won the game 3-2 in 11 innings, blowing an early lead, as Cuban leader Fidel Castro sat between commissioner Bud Selig and Orioles owner Peter Angelos in box seats. The afternoon began with a flag ceremony for players on both teams, Castro visiting briefly with the O's then giving his players a pep talk.

"I have really good memories," recalled O's leadoff-hitting centerfielder Brady Anderson. "There was some internal debate whether we should go or not, but I thought it was a good idea. … They treated us perfectly, the game went well, the people were incredibly nice to us."

Besides the hand-rolled Cuban cigar he enjoyed, one of Bordick's most vivid memories was how intense the game was.

"There wasn't any buddy-buddy stuff," said Bordick, now a team broadcaster. "It wasn't like a Rocky fight or anything like that, but it was really competitive."

The game in Havana was the first in a home-and-home series, with the Orioles losing the May 3 rematch at Camden Yards 12-6, which Anderson, now a team exec, says remains a sore point: "Watching them celebrate on our field still bothers me."

On the past and thepresent

The Rays exhibition is viewed by some as "baseball diplomacy," another element of President Barack Obama's plan to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba.

Cuba used to be a regular stop for major- and minor-league players. It served as a spring training base for the Dodgers for a few years in the 1940s, and it was home of a minor-league team affiliated with the Senators and Reds in the 1950s, a frequent winter ball destination (Don Zimmer, for example, played there in 1952-53) and site of occasional exhibitions between big-league teams.

But like many other facets of life in Cuba, that changed dramatically when the Castro-led revolution installed a Communist government in 1959, and the United States responded by instituting a trade embargo, essentially ending the baseball connection.

The 1999 exhibition by the Orioles was one step back, and the Rays' exhibition is another.

Concurrently, MLB is working to develop new procedures for Cuban players to get signed without having to first defect and seek residency elsewhere.

This comes at a time when Obama, who this week will be the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years, has led the effort to relax a significant number of restrictions on travel and conducting business, even reinstating postal delivery.

On why Cubans are so good

Many of the Cuban players who have made it to the major leagues, from Hall of Famer Tony Perez to current Aroldis Chapman and Yasiel Puig, tend to make their presence known.

What makes them so good?

"It's religion there," MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre said.

Major-league executives cite several other reasons:

The Cubans' passion and knowledge of the game, how early they start playing, their devotion to baseball over other sports and activities, the natural athleticism they have and the high level of competition at which they play. Also, the players who come over tend to be older and more developed than the usual prospects.

"The Cuban player, whether young or older with more experience, they've been playing baseball from a young age," Tigers GM Al Avila said. "So naturally they are a little bit more advanced, even intellectually in the baseball sense."

Not all the Cuban players turn out to be stars. And the ones who get the big bucks after coming over tend to be an elite group.

"There are obviously a good amount of skilled athletes in that country, and it's a small country," Orioles executive Brady Anderson said. "But you're talking about a country that has a very developed and sophisticated baseball program, and we get to pick the very, very, very best. So you would expect to have very good players come out of there."

Though not all the Cuban players become stars, their specific tools tend to be impressive.

Arm strength, for position players and pitchers, tends to be one, as Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier notes with some envy.

Another, as Boston manager John Farrell pointed out, is that they tend to use the whole field for hitting: "It's really interesting to see how they stay in the middle of the field and how they stay inside the baseball."

Plus, Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski said, there is a legacy factor.

"It's been in their blood," he said. "The historical aspect of Cuban baseball is phenomenal. … So there is great pride in that country."

On Rays playing Cubans

None of the current Rays players (except Cuban-born outfielder Dayron Varona) or staff have played in Cuba. But several have faced Cuban teams in international tournaments:

• Right-hander Chris Archer, then a Cubs prospect, faced a Cuban team that included current big-leaguers Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu and Hector Olivera in a 2010 Pan Am Games Qualifier in Puerto Rico, working six shutout innings for Team USA and striking out 10. "I remember looking back at that last year and seeing the names and I was like, 'Woah, I had no clue who I was facing,' " he said. "I'm glad I didn't know."

• Second baseman Logan Forsythe, then a junior at Arkansas, played on the U.S. team that lost to Cuba 3-1 in the 2007 Pan Am Games gold medal game.

• Third baseman Evan Longoria and first baseman Steve Pearce played for Team USA in the 2007 World Cup gold medal-winning 6-3 victory. Longoria went 2-for-5 and scored two runs.

The Tampa Bay Times' Rays beat writer Marc Topkin provides daily dispatches on the team's historic visit to Havana to play the Cuban National Team.

     
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