HAVANA: Kendrys Morales of the Kansas City Royals may rather forget last week’s loss to the Texas Rangers, but the game will now be seared into baseball fans’ memories in his native Cuba.
On Sunday, the Royals’s 5-2 loss to the Rangers became the first Major League baseball game featuring a Cuban player to be broadcast on television on the island, in a further sign of warming ties between Washington and Havana.
Baseball-loving Cuba’s state-run TV network has broadcast Major League games since 2013.
But the replay of the Royals-Rangers game—which was played on May 13—is the first time a game featuring a so-called “deserter” has been shown on Cuban TV.
The commentators on Cuba’s “International Baseball” program refrained from mentioning Morales’s past as a player for Havana club Industriales and the Cuban national team.
The designated hitter, who has also played first base, left Cuba on a raft a decade ago to chase his dreams in the US Big Leagues.
He is still an idol in Cuba, where baseball fans remember him as a switch-hitting phenom who lit up the national team with his power batting.
Morales, 31, delivered a solid performance in the May 13 game, batting in center fielder Lorenzo Cain in the seventh inning and then scoring himself off a double by catcher Salvador Perez.
But the Rangers nevertheless upset the Royals, who are in first place in the American League Central.
Some 20 Cuban-born players are currently active in the Major Leagues, including stars Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez, Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes.
Since December 17, when US President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro announced a historic thaw after more than five decades of enmity, both US teams and Cuban players have been hoping the island’s baseball talent will finally be able to join the Major Leagues without fleeing illegally.
But while Obama has relaxed certain restrictions on travel to and from the island, the trade and financial embargo the US has imposed since 1962 still means Cuban baseball players cannot play in the United States without defecting.
Cuba’s national baseball commissioner, Heriberto Suarez, said last week that the game is being “lacerated” on the island by defections and attempted defections — about 60 last season.
Castro’s government began allowing athletes to sign with foreign teams in 2013, for the first time since 1961, two years after the Cuban Revolution.
About a dozen baseball players have signed with teams in Mexico, Japan and Canada.