PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays players and staff were talking a good game Wednesday morning about how excited they were to make the now-official late March exhibition game trip to Cuba.
Chris Archer is intrigued by hanging out at the famed Hot Corner Cafe to talk baseball with the locals and hopefully joining some kids playing stickball in a street. Manager Kevin Cash is interested in seeing firsthand the fabled passion of the Cuban fans and talent of their players, even joking "maybe we'll bring back a couple of guys with us."
But the player this trip would mean the most to is Dayron Varona.
You likely have not heard of Varona, and that is not your fault. He's a 28-year-old outfielder who split last season between Class A and Double A and is in camp on a minor-league deal with little chance to impact the big-league team.
But he is from Cuba.
Which makes everything different.
Varona left Cuba in November 2013 on a boat with his mother, headed to Haiti then a more prosperous life in the States but knowing he might not ever get to go back.
And certainly not with the chance to return and play again on the famed Estado Latinoamericano field where he appeared many times during his seven years with Camaguey in their top league.
"It would be a really great opportunity for me to go back to my homeland," Varona said, through Rays interpreter George Pappas. "My mom and I left without really telling anybody, and it's been a while since we had contact with the family there. So obviously you'd love to have that opportunity to go back."
Varona wouldn't share many details of his escape, just that it was a passenger boat (as opposed to a raft-like vessel some use), there were four others aboard and it took 12 hours to get to Haiti, where he eventually got citizenship to facilitate his defection.
"It's a memory," Varona said, "that you don't want to remember."
Rays players — who will have a dozen trained security guards along and escorts anytime they leave the hotel — have been asking Varona what Cuba will be like during their March 20-22 stay:
"Some of them have been a little bit afraid, wondering, okay, what is the situation like over there. Is it violent? Are the people aggressive? What's going on with the government?"
He told them the Cubans are respectful and nice, that "they are good people." He told them that the situation with the government is "unfortunate." More so, he told them how talented the Cuban players are and how rabid the fans are and how excited they will be to see a major-league team.
Varona was just a curious kid the last time, when the Orioles made a 1999 visit. He grew up to play at the highest level in Cuba, but his salary, he said Wednesday, prefacing the answer with his only English words of the interview — "Oh my God" — came out to no more than $4 a month.
Getting out and getting the chance to play in the States, even though he signed for less than $500,000, made more than enough sense.
"I didn't do anything wrong," Varona said through Pappas. "Any Cuban who leaves the island the way we did loses citizenship. I'm not fearful of returning. It's the decision that I made, and it was a good decision."
As excited as Varona is for the serendipitous opportunity to return, he knows better than to get too excited just yet. At least publicly.
The Rays still have to include Varona as one of their 28 allotted players — though it would seem almost cruel if they didn't, barring injury — and paperwork still has to be properly processed.
Archer, as the Rays' player rep, has been out front in talking about how the trip shouldn't be viewed politically (even though President Barack Obama will be there, too) but as a goodwill visit to "reward" the Cuban people for their baseball passion.
And, after talking extensively with Varona, he is certain how rewarding the trip would be for him.
"If he does get the opportunity to go running out to the outfield and have 50,000 people screaming for him and having a hat tip to all the fans," Archer said, "that would be probably the most special moment in his baseball career."
Talk about a goodwill gesture.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.