Players lead successful Cuba goodwill tour

A quartet of Cuban-born stars led a joint MLBPA-MLB goodwill tour of the baseball-rich country from Dec. 15-18.

The Cuban players -- Jose Abreu, Brayan Pena, Yasiel Puig and Alexei Ramirez -- were joined by three-time NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, four-time AL All-Star Nelson Cruz and 2011 World Series champion Jon Jay.

It was the first Major League visit to Cuba since March 1999, when the Orioles played an exhibition game against the Cuban national team in Havana.

"This is what baseball can do," Pena said as the trip came to a close. "Baseball can open up hearts, and baseball can open up relationships."

The visit consisted of a press conference followed by children's baseball clinics at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana and Estadio Victoria de Giron in Matanzas. Fans swarmed the players at each of the locations, demonstrating the Cuban people's deep engagement with the players and the game.

The participating players also presented a $200,000 grant from the Players Trust and MLB to Caritas Cubana, the U.S.-based, non-governmental provider of humanitarian, social and emergency services to Cuba.

"Maybe someday we'll look back and say there was a lot of historical significance to this trip," Kershaw said. "Ultimately, we came to help, to play with the kids, teach some baseball and to have a little fun. I think we accomplished that." 

Executive director Tony Clark and special advisor Dave Winfield led a PA contingent while Joe Torre headed a team of MLB staffers.

Baseball-savvy Cubans treated the players like rock stars, forming crowds at each stop of the tour.

"When we did those baseball clinics I was able to share a lot of my experience with the Cuban kids," Pena said. "I didn't know how much they follow us, but to see the smiles on their faces was priceless."

For the players with Cuban roots, including Jay, whose grandparents were from Cuba, the trip carried additional sentiment.

"To go to my grandparents' hometown and where my grandfather grew up … To be able to see the streets he walked, the house where he lived, the ballpark he used to go to as a kid, it was very emotional for me and very inspirational for me," Jay said.

The players who were born in Cuba and left never expected they would be able to return.

"Being able to see my family after 17 years was the highlight of my trip," Pena said. "Just to see them and to hug them and spend time with them will be the greatest memory I take with me."

Said Abreu: "In these moments we gave the children smiles that they didn't have and they gave smiles right back to us."

For Kershaw, it was also an opportunity to learn about the culture and experience of some of the players with whom he shares a clubhouse.

"To see what baseball is like over here, to kind of understand our Cuban players in America and understand what they've been through and what they've left behind is important for me," he said.

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Players joined Cuban children on stage for some impromptu singing and dancing.

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