Tampa Bay and Cuba ready to play ball

Preparations for Tampa Bay and Cuba baseball game continue

Preparations continue Monday, March 21, 2016, at Estadio Latina Americano in Havana continue for the Tampa Bay and Cuba exhibition game on Tuesday.
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Preparations continue Monday, March 21, 2016, at Estadio Latina Americano in Havana continue for the Tampa Bay and Cuba exhibition game on Tuesday.

The president of Cuba’s Baseball Federation says Cuba is willing to let its players pursue their dreams in the Major League — as long as they are treated the same as any other international players.

“We haven’t placed the limitations on this; the limitations are imposed by the embargo,” Higinio Velez said Monday, the day before the Tampa Bay Rays face the Cuban national team in an exhibition game.

MLB and Cuba are in conversations on a deal that would allow Cuban players to play ball in the United States without having to defect or risk dangerous sea passages and sometimes treacherous human traffickers.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the issue is complicated because it involves policies “far larger than baseball.”

Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association, said both sides wanted to find a “safer way” for Cuban ball players, but added, “It’s very complicated and likely to take time.”

“The embargo has to be eliminated,” said Heriberto Suarez, commissioner of Baseball Cuba.

Velez said Cuban players shouldn’t have to lose their citizenship to play ball in the United States. “We want respect and equality [for Cuban players] – the same as for any other players in the world.”

But it’s an understatement to say both sides are looking forward to Tuesday’s game – the first time an MLB franchise has played against the Cuban national team since the Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition in March 1999.

“This is historic for us on the American side and for baseball as well," said Stuart Sternberg, the main owner of the Tampa team. "We know it's going to do wonders for the game of baseball. It's also an honor to play in front of these fans that have such a passion for baseball."

Dayron Varona, who just three years ago risked the waters of the Gulf of Mexico to come to the United States with his mother, will be getting some playing time during the exhibition. Outfielder Varona, who arrived with the Tampa team Sunday night, had an emotional reunion with his Cuban family.

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said the players asked that Varona, who signed a Tampa Bay minor league contract last year, and had been in spring training, get the opportunity to play in front of his family.

Cuban fans at the Latinoamericano Stadium were especially enthusiastic when Varona arrived at the park Monday, yelling “Dayron, Dayron.”

Andrew Bellatti, a Rays pitcher, said he wasn't used to the level of excitement the Cuban fans showed.

"I'm expecting this place to be packed tomorrow," Bellati said, between signing baseballs and taking pictures at the stadium. "I'm expecting a playoff atmosphere."

Principal owner Stuart Stenberg, Manager Kevin Cash and players Chris Archer and Evan Longoria give a press conference one day ahead of game against Cuban national team.

However, some Cuban baseball fans said their team is weaker than usual right now, in part because of the defection last month of Yuliesky Gourriel and his brother, Lourdes Jr., two of the best players on the Cuban national team.

The two left the national team during a stay in the Dominican Republic with the intention of going to play in the U.S., El Nuevo Herald reported in February.

Luis Tiant, 75, a Cuban who was a three-time All-Star during his 19-year Major League career, and Cuban pitching great Pedro Luis Lazo, who excelled for the Cuban national team, will share the honors of throwing out the first pitch

President Barack Obama and the first family are expected to watch at least part of the game from a box behind home plate and former New York Yankees Captain Derek Jeter, who is among a number of former MLB players in town, may accompany them.

Cuban leader Raúl Castro also will be at the ball park.

"All of us in Major League Baseball are very proud to play a small role in the evolution of the relationship between the two countries," said Manfred.

Tampa infielder Evan Longoria said the players arrived too late Sunday to see anything of Havana, but, "I do know that Major League players coming over from Cuba are very talented players.

A big "common denominator between the two countries is baseball," he said.

When Major League Baseball decided to play an exhibition game in Cuba — well before the president's visit was scheduled — Tampa was one of the teams that threw its hat into the ring.

The team that would play in Cuba was determined when a baseball with Tampa's name on it was drawn out of basket.

Monday afternoon was devoted to the future of the game. At a baseball field across the street from Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion, a group of young Cuban baseball players and Tampa Bay Rays coaches gathered around former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre.

"You know the best thing about this game?" Torre told the kids, who had just participated in a clinic put on by the Rays coaches. After his long career in the sport, he said, "It still feels brand new."

Miami Herald special correspondent Spencer Parts contributed to this story

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