When you look at the history of the United States and Cuba, most minds jump immediately to the Cold War and the Bay of Pigs invasion. Others will think of the rich Cuban heritage that drives much of Miami and the southern areas of Florida.
Most sports fans associate Cuba with the players that have taken Major League Baseball by storm, including Yasiel Puig and Yonenis Cespedes, just to name a few. The list of Cuban players in the game continues to grow and many former players and managers run to the country to find or inspect the next great talent. Due to the presidential push to reestablish trade, tourism, and government relations with the country, the MLB took a delegation to Cuba which included former Yankees shortstop, Derek Jeter and several other Cuban born players.
The MLB delegation met up with the President of the United States in Havana on March 22nd, for the first game played by an American major league team in the country since 1999. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays beat the Cuban national team, 4-1.
While the exhibition game was rather controversial in regards to how the U.S. usually deals with communist countries, it was also legendary in regards to sport diplomacy. During the 50 years of exile, the only thing the U.S. and Cuba ever agreed upon was baseball. It seemed only fitting to begin the restoration process with both countries’ beloved past-time. President Obama even enjoyed the game alongside Cuban president, Raul Castro and the Cuban national team graced First Lady, Michelle Obama and daughter, Sasha, with flowers and small Cuban flags.
The Tampa Bay pitching staff shut out the Cuban nationals’ and sealed the deal on James Loney’s home-run which also drove in the rest of Ray’s scores that evening. The only score from the Cuban team came off of the bat of Rudy Reyes.
While the game truly marks the start of a union seemingly long overdue, there were protests in Havana after the game, including an interruption of ESPN’s Bob Ley, in a live segment for their flagship program, SportsCenter. A Cuban man jumped into view and began yelling when five others joined him. Cuban police quickly responded and no one was hurt. Ley noted that all the men were arrested and any kind of protest paraphernalia spread out by the men was quickly collected and destroyed.
Protests didn’t stop even upon the Ray’s return to the U.S. In a spring training game v.s. the Pittsburgh Pirates, a Cuban fan jumped on to the field and reportedly threw two beers into the Ray’s dugout while cursing at the team in Spanish. No one was hurt and the man was calmed by Ray’s third base coach, Charlie Montoyo. The man was later arrested for trespassing and assault.
As we creep closer and closer to opening day, it will become even more interesting to see if another exhibition game will be played in the U.S. or if there are any other plans with the MLB delegation to continue to bridge the sport even further into the improving relations between the two countries.