HAVANA — The waiter stopped to make polite chatter, asking the five obvious tourists sipping coffee at the Hotel Telegrafo on Sunday afternoon what brought them to Havana.
Baseball, he was told in Spanish, specifically the Tampa Bay Rays.
Then Ambrosio Arias really wanted to talk.
He wanted to know first about Danys Baez, the Cuban reliever who pitched two seasons for the Devil Rays, making the 2005 All-Star team. Then about Rolando Arrojo, the Cuban pitcher who was the first Tampa Bay All-Star in 1998.
Clearly excited for Tuesday's exhibition game between the Rays and the Cuban National Team, Arias then wanted to talk about the current Rays stars. He had seen a recent special on them on Cuban TV, which also shows some games, and was particularly intrigued by third baseman Evan Longoria and pitcher Chris Archer.
Though the Rays didn't arrive in Cuba until Sunday — principal owner Stuart Sternberg leading a morning contingent of 85 that included executives and sponsors; Longoria, Archer and the rest of the players arriving just before 11 p.m. — their reputation clearly preceded them.
Most of Sunday's mid afternoon conversation at the famous Hot Corner gathering spot in Havana's Parque Central for passionate baseball fans was about the quantity and quality of players who have left the island — and it was more heated and animated than any barroom argument you've ever had. The men take turns making, and defending, their point then step back to let someone else step in, something like a cross between a debate competition and a rap battle.
As Raul Ced walked away, he was asked what he knew of the Rays. Only that for their first nine or 10 years they were really bad, that in 2008 they made it to the World Series and lost to the Phillies, that they have one of those Cuban players who left, outfielder Dayron Varona, and it will be exciting to see him again.
And that they will be the better team Tuesday.
"I wish it was my team that wins," Ced said, via Rays interpreter George Pappas. "But I'm pulling for Tampa because of the quality of their team."
Another fan in the park, Asdrubal Palacio, said he was among those lucky enough to have tickets to Tuesday's exhibition at Estadio Latinoamericano, which were not sold publicly but distributed by invitation only.
"For many reasons, for the political, for the people," Palacio said in broken English, "this game is the best day in the history of Cuba. Having two presidents (Barack Obama and Raul Castro) is beautiful."
William Hernandez (Requejo) agreed. Cuban-born, he is a business professor at the University of California at Irvine who brings classes to the island and is also involved in "normalization" projects for the United Nations, such as renewable energy and microgrids.
But above all that, Hernandez is "a baseball nut," and he comes to the Hot Corner during every one of his monthly visits, marveling at how much the Cuban fans know about big-leaguers — including detailed stats — and how passionately they present it.
Having the Rays playing, and President Obama watching, is "a transformational event," he said.
"You know how everybody talks about what we call baseball diplomacy?" Hernandez said. "This is baseball diplomacy. That's literally what you're seeing here. You are seeing how baseball can bring countries together."
Andres Perez, a Cuban tour guide escorting Hernandez's class, said he doesn't have to see the final score Tuesday to know "who is going to be the winner. It's friendship."
After arriving at the tony team hotel following the one-hour flight on an Eastern Airlines/Air Havana charter that included St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and staff and family, Sternberg said the Rays were happy to do their part.
He lauded the extensive work by Chris Westmoreland, Melanie Lenz and other staffers in working out the complex multi-government logistics. He joked that anyone who got in trouble was with Major League Baseball rather than the team. He noted, as many do, how odd it was to see so many 1950s-era cars on the relatively quiet roads. And he said he expected to meet President Obama, whose 40-plus car motorcade went past the team hotel on the Malecon, the famous waterfront roadway similar to Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard.
The arrival of former Yankees star Derek Jeter, a special guest of Major League Baseball, caused a bit of a stir in the Melia Cohiba hotel lobby later Sunday.
But the big moment occurred shortly after 11 p.m. when Varona had an emotional reunion in the hotel lobby with eight members of the family he left behind when leaving Cuba three years ago, including his sister and his young niece, Meliza.
"It's something that I can't believe is happening,'' Varona said with tears in his eyes. "Even hugging my niece there, it's something I can't put into words. To have an experience like this right now is pretty unbelievable."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.