PORT CHARLOTTE, Florida: Chris Archer is not scheduled to see action in the Tampa Bay Rays’ exhibition game Tuesday against the Cuban national team at Estadio Latinoamericano.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Archer won’t pitch in Cuba.
The Rays’ inquisitive staff ace is eager to interact with the locals, his limited Spanish-language skills notwithstanding, and his ideal scenario would involve pitching to kids in a pick-up game. Archer already has sent out feelers to find out where in Havana he could make that happen.
Rather than load up on cigars or rum, Archer wants to collect memories from this rare chance for a major league player. The Baltimore Orioles in 1999 were the last MLB team to play in Cuba.
Sunday, the Rays set off for Cuba, where they’ll play a friendly exhibition Tuesday, along with plenty of immersion in between. President Obama landed in Havana aboard Air Force One Sunday afternoon, accompanied by Rachel and Sharon Robinson, wife and daughter of baseball trailblazer Jackie Robinson, and was greeted by various Cuban dignitaries.
Archer anticipates a far more down to earth trip.
“I want authentic interaction with the people there. That’s what I do normally when I travel,” said Archer, who has visited Africa and Asia. “I’m not big on souvenirs. I’m big on experiences, things you can’t purchase with money, opening my mind and my eyes to what else is out there in the world.”
The Rays are mindful of their role as ambassadors as MLB seeks to reestablish ties with Cuban baseball officials after President Obama – who will visit the island at the same time – announced a normalizing of relations between the countries in December 2014.
The Rays, picked at random from a list of teams that volunteered for the trip, are embracing the opportunity wholeheartedly. They are bringing a roster of 34 players along with boxes full of baseball equipment to donate. On Monday, team personnel will host a clinic and go on a bus tour of the sights.
“It’s a great opportunity to showcase the game, not just the beauty of the game but its power in terms of bringing together cultures, in this case helping bring down some barriers that have existed,” said Matt Silverman, Tampa Bay’s president of baseball operations. “Baseball is helping pave the way for some of the changes and we’re excited to be a part of it.”
None more so than Dayron Varona, the club’s only Cuban-born player. Varona, a 28-year-old outfielder who has yet to play above Class AA, is not on the 40-man roster but was added to the travel squad after Archer, third baseman Evan Longoria and other Rays lobbied for him.
It will be Varona’s first trip back to his home country since defecting with his mother on a boat bound for Haiti three years ago. Besides reuniting with his relatives, he’s looking forward to again experiencing the Cuban lifestyle, which he dearly misses.
“I still can’t believe it,” Varona said in Spanish about the trip. “Since I left, I haven’t heard that joy that Cuban people have.”
Several of the Rays players have expressed an interest in feeling the passion for the game that Cuban fans are known for, and even in stopping by La Esquina Caliente (The Hot Corner), the section of Old Havana’s Parque Central renowned for its loud baseball discussions.
Varona actually knows how that passion manifests itself. He played seven seasons in the island’s Serie Nacional, mostly for the team representing his home province of Camaguey, and spent a year on the national team.
“Cuban fans are all the same. They’re very demanding,” Varona said. “They want you to do everything perfectly all the time. That’s their role. They cheer for you when you do well, and they’re hard on you when you don’t.”
Whereas Cuban athletes who defected were branded as traitors in the past, they’re now received warmly, their exploits the source of local pride. When Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Alexei Ramirez and Brayan Pena returned to their native land in December as part of MLB’s goodwill tour, they were greeted like heroes.
In addition, former Cuban stars like Jose Contreras and Rey Ordonez returned to Cuba under a 3-year-old law that allows high-profile exiles to go back without retribution after eight years away.
In light of those developments, Varona expects a pleasant reception at Estadio Latinoamericano.
“I hope to get a heartfelt ovation. I don’t expect that they’ll yell anything bad,” he said. “I made a personal decision. But whatever response I get, I’ll accept it the best way possible. Being Cuban, I want the best for Cuba.”
Playing against a Cuban team won’t be a new experience for some Tampa Bay players, such as Archer, Longoria, second baseman Logan Forsythe and catcher Hank Conger, all of whom did it in international tournaments.
Conger remembers trading caps after a game and would like to do it again, or maybe trade jerseys. Longoria is intrigued about the architecture and the beaches. Silverman plans to bring his dad some cigars.
All of them are eager for a taste of baseball with a Cuban flavor.
“The biggest thing is spreading goodwill, bringing two cultures together,” Longoria said. “It’s the national pastime for both cultures and that’s the common ground and the common theme for this whole trip.”