By: Jorge L. Ortiz, USA Today Sports
Obama family watches baseball game with Raul Castro, President of Cuba (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)
HAVANA — For several days, Tampa Bay Rays players had expressed their admiration for the baseball passion Cuban fans are known for. On Tuesday afternoon, the Rays truly experienced it..Down 4-0 with one out in the bottom of the ninth, the Cuban national team finally showed signs of life when Rudy Reyes hit a solo homer off Rays reliever Alex Colome. When Juan Torriente followed with a double, Estadio Latinoamericano erupted, chants of “Cuba! Cuba!’’ suddenly reverberating around the antiquated ballpark.
Colome got the next two outs to close out the Rays’ 4-1 victory in the first game for a major league team in Cuban soil since 1999, but the visitors got a full taste of what baseball means in this island, and they came away impressed.
“Most of this group has played winter ball to some capacity,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said, alluding to the typically vibrant environment at those games. “It’s winter ball times 10 over here.’’
Sports, nationalism and politics made for a powerful mix on a day when President Obama sat alongside Cuban President Raul Castro in the box seats, 15 months after they announced a normalizing of relations between two countries that had been estranged for more than five decades.
It was the first visit to Cuba by a sitting president in 88 years, and the first time such a trip was paired with an appearance by a major league team. Emotions flowed freely before, during and after the game.
“In the opening ceremony, I honestly had to fight back some tears,’’ said Rays staff ace Chris Archer, who presented Obama with a glove from teammate Matt Moore. “It was emotional.’’
That applied to a number of figures involved in the game.
Rays right fielder Dayron Varona, who left the island three years ago, reunited with his relatives when the club reached Havana on Sunday, a moment he called “beautiful but also painful.’’
When he stepped up to the plate leading off the game – receiving only modest applause but no discernible booing – Varona became the first Cuban to come back and play in his home country after defecting.
Varona, who played at Class AA last season and was included on the travel roster at his teammates’ urging, was given a warmer ovation when he left the game in the bottom of the third, right around the same time as Obama.
“It was very satisfying to have them applaud for me when I left the field,’’ said Varona, 27. “I’m Cuban. Just because I took a decision at one point doesn’t mean I stopped being Cuban. I’m Cuban in the United States, in Alaska, anywhere.’’
Umpires Angel Hernandez and Lazaro Diaz, who worked first and third base, respectively, also have strong feelings for their parental homeland.
Hernandez’s family left the island 54 years ago when he was 14 months old. He returned for the first time in December as part of his church’s missionary work and participated in an umpiring clinic organized by MLB. At that time he spread the ashes of his father, Angel, along their La Playa Guanabo neighborhood in Old Havana.
For 34 years, Angel Sr. ran a Little League in Hialeah, Fla., that produced several major leaguers, and he directed his oldest son toward umpiring when Angel Jr. was starting to feel the lure of the street. Angel Sr. died four years ago.
Traveling to the homeland his father could never return to, both in December and now, proved overwhelming for the veteran umpire.
“I cried like a baby,’’ he said.
Diaz, his childhood friend and baseball opponent from Miami, was born in the U.S. to Cuban parents and had traveled to the island a few times before. Still, he felt a surge of emotions Tuesday.