Friday, November 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays score some big fans in Cuba

RECOMMENDED READING


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 [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

     
                       
Comments
Rays hope to cash in on Alex Cobb leaving

Rays hope to cash in on Alex Cobb leaving

LAKE BUENA VISTA — The Rays were banking on pitcher Alex Cobb declining their one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer based on the lure of a longer-term and more lucrative deal elsewhere as a free agent.With that decision official Thursday, now the ...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Commissioner Rob Manfred likes Ybor City stadium site, but must see more support to keep baseball in Tampa Bay

Commissioner Rob Manfred likes Ybor City stadium site, but must see more support to keep baseball in Tampa Bay

LAKE BUENA VISTA — MLB commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t want to talk Thursday about what might happen if the current effort to build the Rays a new stadium at the Ybor City site falls through."I’m more focused on working with the community to figure o...
Updated: 8 hours ago
A message to Rays fans from Alex Cobb

A message to Rays fans from Alex Cobb

Here is a message from RHP Alex Cobb after he officially left the Rays Thursday in declining their one-year, $17.4-milllion qualifying offer to seek a bigger and longer pact elsewhere:"Getting to this point in my career is truly bittersweet."Twelve y...
Updated: 9 hours ago
UPDATE: Rays to gain draft pick for loss of free agent pitcher Alex Cobb

UPDATE: Rays to gain draft pick for loss of free agent pitcher Alex Cobb

UPDATE, 5:01: Cobb did not accept the offer by the deadline, as expected.DEVELOPING: Sometime before today's 5 p.m. deadline, the Rays will get official word that their $17.4-million slight gamble on Alex Cobb paid off.The Rays made the free-agent ri...
Updated: 12 hours ago
As he prepares to leave the Rays, how will you remember Alex Cobb?

As he prepares to leave the Rays, how will you remember Alex Cobb?

Presuming Alex Cobb declines the Rays’ one-year, $17.4-million qualifying offer by 5 p.m. today, he has pitched his last game for Tampa Bay.Cobb has received preliminary interest from "lots of teams" already, agent Dan Horwits said. The Cubs and Twin...
Published: 11/16/17
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred says progress must continue on new stadium to keep Rays

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred says progress must continue on new stadium to keep Rays

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred made clear Thursday that identification of a site for a new Rays stadium is merely the first step for area leaders to show they want to keep the team long-term and that there needs to "consistent forward movement" on the ...
Published: 11/16/17
Sternberg: Tampa Bay Rays' share of new ballpark could be $150 million

Sternberg: Tampa Bay Rays' share of new ballpark could be $150 million

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Wednesday that the team is "genuinely excited" about the proposed Ybor City site for a new stadium and more than "cautiously optimistic" the project can be completed. But ...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/16/17

Rays journal: No big deals at GM meetings, but possible groundwork laid

By MARC TOPKINLAKE BUENA VISTA — Rays officials left the GM meetings without making any big deals — such as trading Alex Colome or Chris Archer to the Cardinals — but more knowledgeable about the possibilities. "Expectations were to utilize these few...
Published: 11/15/17
Watch: Brandy Halladay’s emotional tribute to her late husband, Roy

Watch: Brandy Halladay’s emotional tribute to her late husband, Roy

For his wife, Brandy, Roy Halladay was so much more than a standout pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies.During a a celebration of life ceremony Tuesday at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Brandy remembered Halladay — who died Nov...
Published: 11/15/17
Fennelly: Roy Halladay — father, husband, friend, ‘normal guy’

Fennelly: Roy Halladay — father, husband, friend, ‘normal guy’

CLEARWATER — It would have been a great day for a baseball game.The Spectrum Field grounds crew did its job. The basepaths were watered down with a hose. The baselines were drawn in chalk. The batter’s box was laid out. Home plate was cleaned. First,...
Updated: 10 hours ago