Varona excited about Cuba, focused on Rays

Havana native, non-roster invitee hopes to join team for trip to homeland

Varona excited about Cuba, focused on Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Dayron Varona left Havana, Cuba, with visions of a better life. Now he's hoping to return to his native land as part of the traveling party the Rays take on their trip to the island nation later this month.

Going to Cuba would be "a good opportunity for me personally," said Varona, with George Pappas of the Rays translating. "It's been three years since I've seen my family. So it would be a really great opportunity for me to go back to my homeland."

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Varona and his mother left Cuba in a boat with four others to make a trip to Haiti that took 12 hours. All Varona will say of that trip is: "It's a memory that you don't want to remember. A very difficult trip. But thank God that I'm here and I have the opportunity that I do.

"I think it was a good decision. ... I'm fortunate the Rays gave me this opportunity. I thank God for the opportunity. I'm just trying to work as hard as I can to maximize that opportunity."

An outfielder, Varona played at the highest level of Cuban baseball -- where he made the equivalent of $4 a month, before leaving Cuba. So he is familiar with excellence and he played at Estadio Latinoamericano "all the time."

Varona, 28, signed with the Rays on May 7 and spent the 2015 season split between Class A Advanced Charlotte and Double-A Montgomery, hitting .286 with 11 home runs, 60 RBIs and six stolen bases in 84 games.

"The number of players who are here [in the Major Leagues], you guys have seen the Cuban ballplayers who are here at this level and what they're able to do," Varona said. "The level of talent that's there in Cuba is pretty formidable."

Because Varona "didn't do anything wrong" in his country, he does not fear repercussions from his native land if he returns with the Rays.

"Any Cuban who leaves the island the way that we did at that point loses citizenship," he said. "But I'm not fearful of returning. That's the decision that I made and it was a good decision, and I'm excited to have the opportunity to maybe have the opportunity to go back."

That performance earned Varona a trip to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee. On Tuesday afternoon, Major League Baseball announced that the Rays would be making a trip to his homeland.

Rays to play Cuban National Team

The Rays will fly to Cuba on March 20. They will stage a clinic the following day before finishing their trip by playing the Cuban National Team in an exhibition game on March 22 at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana.

Tentatively, the Rays are planning to take 28-30 players on the trip. Varona is not a lock for one of those spots, though he is "a possibility," according to manager Kevin Cash. That didn't stop the speculation about how great such a trip would be for the outfielder, who defected from Cuba three years ago.

Varona has been swamped with questions from his teammates about Cuba and what to expect on the trip.

"Some have even been a little afraid, wondering, 'What's the situation like over there?'" Varona said. "'Is it violent? Are the people aggressive? What's going on with the government?' The Cuban people are respectful people. They're nice people. They're good people. The situation with the government has been an unfortunate case. But it is what it is.

Rays excited to play in Cuba

"In terms of the level of play there, it's really good baseball. And the fans are really into it. I would expect that the fans there are pretty excited to see a Major League Baseball team go there, because I would expect most of them have never seen a Major League team before."

Varona emphasized that while the possibility of returning to Cuba presents a "pretty cool opportunity for me," he is also "up here to field and to run and bat and work as hard" as he can.

"Being in Cuba and playing at the highest level there, you really haven't seen the level of talent that's up here, and it's a pretty grand opportunity for me to be surrounded by that and to be beside players of that caliber," Varona said.

Should Varona make the trip, he hopes that family members will be able to come to Havana to watch him play.

"I've got some family there [in Cuba], they're about a province away," Varona said. "It takes about three hours to get there. It would be pretty neat if they were able to come see me."

Cash said that "we'd be very excited for him" if the opportunity for Varona to make the trip comes to fruition.

"He's a guy who kind of came in as an unknown," Cash said. "You can tell how he plays the game, the energy. The other day we were doing pickoffs and rundowns. It was supposed to be a light day and he's Mach 10 flying through bases. We had to tell him to calm down. He does some exciting things.

"We talked about [how well he throws], his BP. He's opened some eyes for sure. Obviously, the Cuban effect and the opportunity to go would bode really well."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.