The Tampa Bay Rays became the first Major League Baseball team in 17 years to play a game in Cuba, defeating the national team, 4-1, in an exhibition in Havana on Tuesday.
James Loney provided the fireworks on the field, driving in three runs for the Rays, two coming on this home run in the top of the fourth inning, via Baseball Tonight:
ESPN Stats & Info relayed the last time an MLB player accomplished what Loney did Tuesday:
The Rays also got a terrific start from Matt Moore, who is looking to rebound from a poor 2015 in which he finished with a 5.43 ERA in 12 starts after returning from Tommy John surgery. The left-hander hurled six shutout innings against Cuba, allowing six hits with three strikeouts and one walk.
Cuba outhit the Rays, 9-5, but couldn’t keep moving the line to get any runs across against Moore. There were highlights for the Cuban team, though, particularly during the first at-bat of the game. This catch from center fielder Roel Santos drew quite the reaction from a notable fan in attendance, via SportsCenter:
While the final result on the field certainly held importance to the enthusiastic crowd in attendance, the game was about far more than just baseball.
Never was that more apparent than before the game, when United States President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro took their seats in the front row to prepare for the first pitch, via DRays Bay:
Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were restored last year, following a 54-year embargo dating back to 1961.
Before the game, Obama wrote a letter on ESPN.com about why today’s game was so important in the bigger picture:
That’s what this visit is about: remembering what we share, reflecting upon the barriers we’ve broken — as people and as nations — and looking toward a better future. Because while I will not ignore the important differences between our governments, I came to Cuba to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.
There are certainly substantial differences between the U.S. and Cuban governments that are not going to resolve themselves overnight. Time will hopefully help lead to changes in that regard. This was about the power of sports and baseball as a unifying force.
Former MLB pitcher and Cuban native Luis Tiant concluded the pregame festivities by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, via the Boston Red Sox’s official Twitter account:
Rays outfielder Dayron Varona, who defected from Cuba three years ago and signed with the team in 2015, had an emotional reunion with his family captured in this image on Monday, via Baseball Tonight:
Varona led off the game, grounding out on the first pitch he saw, and received a nice ovation from the crowd.
It was a light and fun atmosphere at the Estadio Latinoamericano, as is often the case during a baseball game. Obama even took part in one of the oldest fan traditions at a sporting event, via Joe Perticone of the Independent Journal:
Even though this was ultimately an exhibition game that didn’t count in the standings, Obama seemed to be invested in what was happened, per Jon Morosi of Fox Sports:
The Rays deserve a world of credit for being open to playing a game in Cuba and so willingly welcoming the opportunity, a point not lost on MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred when he was interviewed on the ESPN telecast (via MLB.com’s Richard Justice):
No one was doing a better job of promoting the game and having more fun than Rays pitcher Chris Archer, who continues to be an awesome person to have around even when he’s not playing in the game.
Per Josh Vitale of the Charlotte Sun, Archer really seemed to be enjoying his moment with the president and first lady Michelle Obama:
There was an amusing interview with Archer on the ESPN telecast, in which he described part of the conversation with the president and first lady, via Faizal Khamisa of Sportsnet:
Luckily, Archer didn’t seem too upset about the president needing a brief introduction to his credentials.
Another famous face in the stands was former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who in his usual way did an interview without really saying much of anything. One notable item Jeter did address is the ever-expanding gulf between “old-school” and “new-school” players, via Pinstripe Alley:
Jeter is right about MLB being better with personalities. Archer, Bryce Harper and Jose Bautista are some of the league’s best and most exciting players. Let them be who they are, especially if it helps the game reach new audiences.
In many ways, that was the metaphor for this game. Cuba is a baseball haven, and being able to bring MLB back to the country after a 17-year absence will only increase the fervor around the sport. The score didn’t matter as much as the feeling and emotion attached to it.
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