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Mexico embraced the Rays’ Randy Arozarena. Sunday, he returned the love

John Romano | Arozarena bypassed all normal protocols to invite one of Mexico’s leading politicians to Tropicana Field.
 
The Rays' Randy Arozarena and Mexico’s foreign affairs minister Marcelo Ebrard stand as the Mexican national anthem plays ahead of Sunday's game at Tropicana Field.
The Rays' Randy Arozarena and Mexico’s foreign affairs minister Marcelo Ebrard stand as the Mexican national anthem plays ahead of Sunday's game at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 22, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — Not so long ago, Randy Arozarena was a man without a country.

He fled his native Cuba on a boat and landed on the shores of a place he’d never been, filled with people he didn’t know. He was barely 20, had no money and only a vague idea of an outlandish plan to strike it rich playing baseball.

Eight years after landing near Cancun, he was standing on the turf at Tropicana Field listening to the Mexican national anthem Sunday afternoon. In the distance was a group of fans sitting in a section known as Randy Land, and beside him was the man who could be Mexico’s next president.

Arozarena has a $4.15 million salary, a baseball card with gaudy stats and, finally, an adopted home in Mexico that seems to adore him.

“It’s really important to support him as a symbol for young people in Mexico to follow,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard.

Ebrard, who wore a No. 24 Rays jersey in recognition of his expected presidential campaign in 2024, was at Tropicana Field at Arozarena’s invitation to throw out the first pitch before Sunday’s game against the Brewers.

Marcelo Ebrard, right, and Randy Arozarena share a moment after the ceremonial first pitch Sunday.
Marcelo Ebrard, right, and Randy Arozarena share a moment after the ceremonial first pitch Sunday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Arozarena had bypassed team officials and diplomatic protocols to send Ebrard a text message two weeks ago with his naively innocent offer to visit Tampa Bay.

Once team officials learned Ebrard was interested in making the journey, they enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor to handle the machinations of a foreign dignitary showing up in a stadium.

“We were happy to hop on it, in the spirit of the Rays always finding creative ways with an eye toward winning,” said Castor, who represents parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. “Don’t you just love it? They’re a unifying force around here.”

Arozarena can be excused for his impetuous version of foreign diplomacy. He’s done it before, and it worked out better than he could have ever imagined.

In 2021, with the World Baseball Classic fast approaching, Arozarena posted an Instagram message imploring fans to ask Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to make him a naturalized citizen.

“I only ask one favor my people, send a message to the president to give me nationality and do me that favor to represent Mexico in the World Classic,” his message read, according to the Google translation of a website in Mexico. “It’s all I want.”

Lopez Obrador put Ebrard in charge of speeding up the process, and Arozarena became a citizen of Mexico exactly 13 months ago.

Gustavo Bermudez, left, and Patricia Guerra, right, of Orlando, wave Mexican flags at Tropicana Field on Sunday.
Gustavo Bermudez, left, and Patricia Guerra, right, of Orlando, wave Mexican flags at Tropicana Field on Sunday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

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That led to Arozarena’s stellar performance in the World Baseball Classic with a .450 batting average with nine RBIs and six walks in six games as Mexico reached the semifinals before losing 6-5 to Japan.

Arozarena later sent the president a game-worn jersey and gave Ebrard an autographed baseball.

“We still write each other,” Arozarena said through Rays team interpreter Manny Navarro. “We still text.”

They finally met in person Sunday, with Arozarena coming up the dugout steps while a crowd of journalists from Mexico chanted his name and Ebrard embraced him.

While Cuban players must establish residency in another country before signing with Major League Baseball teams, Arozarena’s time in Mexico was fairly brief. He won a batting title while playing for a feeder team for the Toros de Tijuana of the Mexican professional league and signed with the Cardinals soon after.

Arozarena, who lives in Tampa Bay in the offseason, hasn’t been back to Mexico since shortly after starring for the Rays in the 2020 World Series, but he said he plans to return after this season.

“I think it’ll be something that’ll be very cool when I go back,” he said through Navarro. “I think the fans will show me a lot of love and respect, especially after what we were able to do with Team Mexico.

“I’m very grateful. I’m very honored, and I’d like to reciprocate the feeling of (Ebrard) coming here and me going back and hopefully doing something for the country.”

Randy Arozarena races toward home plate to score a run in the eighth inning Sunday.
Randy Arozarena races toward home plate to score a run in the eighth inning Sunday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

While Mexico has produced stars such as Fernando Valenzuela and Vinny Castilla in the past, there have not been many high-profile players in the majors in recent years. Ebrard said Arozarena’s performance and charisma in the World Baseball Classic have reignited a passion for baseball in Mexico.

And the Rays, he said, have become the major-league team fans follow.

“There are a lot of young, young, young people, kids that weren’t interested in baseball. Right now, they are following this team and Randy’s career,” Ebrard said. “We have more audience on TV. He’s very popular on the social network.

“I can say that baseball’s importance in Mexico is growing fast.”

While Ebrard had a Rays jersey with the No. 24 on the back, he was also presented an Arozarena No. 56 jersey. Arozarena signed his name on the back of the jersey on the No. 5 and below that wrote in Spanish: “With much affection for Marcelo Ebrard. Thank you.”

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @Romano_TBTimes.

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