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Rays score some big fans in Cuba

HAVANA — No matter what the outcome is of today's historic exhibition game against the Cuban National Team, the Rays will leave the island having won some new friends plus a very big little fan.

Nine-year-old Diego Lopez was quietly tagging along Monday morning with his dad, Geovani, who was volunteering to help the grounds crew at Estadio Latinoamericano as the Rays prepped for a midmorning workout.

First, Rays catcher Rene Rivera called Diego onto the field and had a team staffer fetch him a blue Rays T-shirt that he pulled on immediately, plus a gift bag of toiletries and school supplies from the stash Rivera's wife had prepared.

Manager Kevin Cash added to Diego's haul, tossing over some even more prized souvenirs: a couple of real major league balls.

Then, Chris Archer made Monday the day Diego may never forget, strolling over to engage him in an extended game of catch — and tossing in a few tips, "Mucho rapido" in a throwing drill — in front of the Cuban team's dugout as a crowd gathered.

Like many other Cuban kids, Diego said he likes to plays baseball whenever possible and to watch whenever he can. He and his dad have followed the Rays before, mentioning the famous Game 162, along with the Red Sox, but were primarily fans of the Cardinals.

Until Monday, anyway.

Would it be safe to say the Rays are now the favorite team of a certain little boy from nearby Marianao, Cuba?

"Claro," Geovani said, providing his own translation. "Of course."

The Lopezes were far from the only converts.

Rays players and coaches were all around the intriguing city Monday, making friends and leaving smiles wherever they went.

• After going through what amounted to a light workout on a blustery morning, several players, including Stephen Souza Jr., James Loney and Andrew Bellatti, hung out on the field with a group of onlookers that kept growing exponentially — stadium workers, event volunteers and members of the national choir rehearsing the anthems.

Two of the singers, Aridane Valdes and Maria Avila, admittedly didn't know much about who the players were, but knew they were players. So as they posed for photos with Bellatti — whose blue hair matched the color of the stadium — they made no effort to mask their giddiness.

"This is very exciting," Valdes said. "Such a unique opportunity."

Irving Negrin, on the other hand, knew exactly who each player was and most of their stats. Wearing the University of Tampa T-shirt he got two years ago from Spartans player Tyler York during the team's visit, Negrin took time off from his job as a security systems technician to volunteer on the tarp crew just to be around the major league players he had only watched and read about before.

First base coach Jamie Nelson tossed him a ball. Archer came by to chat. Then Loney, the player he really wanted to meet, wandered over and posed for a picture. "I love this," Negrin said.

• A group of players lunched on seafood at the famous Floridita bar, known for the life-sized bronze statue of Ernest Hemingway and a photo of the famous writer with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Infielder Tim Beckham and outfielder Mikie Mahtook ended up behind the bar making daiquiris, much to the delight of the lunchtime crowd. "It was a blast," Beckham said.

• Five members of the coaching staff spent a chunk of their afternoon on a youth league field a long throw from Plaza de la Revolución — the plaza that honors Cuban political leaders José Martí, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos — running a clinic for more than 60 kids, ages 9-10, who played on area youth league teams.

With U.S. and Cuban flags in the unusual alignment of hanging side-by-side on the fence, the kids — with help from interpreters — heard from Jim Hickey on pitching, Derek Shelton on hitting, Rocco Baldelli on outfield play, and Charlie Montoyo and Tom Foley on defense.

"Interacting with the kids, seeing how passionate they were for the game, was great. You could tell they were excited," Foley said. "You just wish you could communicate a little better with them. You look over there and see the Cuban and American flags together, and it shows you we're united by the game of baseball."

As obviously appreciative as the Cuban kids and their families were to see and hear them, the Rays coaches were as thrilled to meet and talk with several legendary Cuban players also participating in the clinic, such as Omar Linares, Enrique Diaz and Lazaro de la Torre, and posed with them for pictures. Cuban-born major leaguers Luis Tiant and José Cardenal, plus Joe Torre and commissioner Rob Manfred, came by at the end.

• Strolling through Old Havana was popular for much of the Rays party. Baldelli, Foley and Montoyo went over in the morning, poking around and into shops then enjoying the ride back in one of those lost-in-time Cuban taxis, this one a 1954 Chevy. A dozen Rays players, including third baseman Evan Longoria, went on a tour of the Cohiba cigar factory and returned to the hotel carrying boxes of the prized stogies.

• Archer was in the spotlight much of the day, joining Hannah Storm on the ESPN set at the stadium then — bringing Souza and Loney along with him — touring several hot spots with reporter Tim Kurkjian and a camera crew in tow, though he seemed to be recognized everywhere he went anyway.

"The hair is a good thing in Cuba," Archer joked.

They, too, lunched at the Floridita. They also stopped in at La Bodeguita Del Medio, the small, graffiti-walled bar where the mojito was supposedly invented, and they visited the Hot Corner spot in Parque Central, where baseball fans gather to passionately discuss — and argue — baseball.

One thing there was no debate about Monday: The Rays seemed to be a hit everywhere they went.

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

Rays score some big fans in Cuba 03/21/16 [Last modified: Monday, March 21, 2016 11:15pm]
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