Cuba trip a 'special moment' for Rays, MLB

Rays are first team to visit island nation since '99 Orioles

Cuba trip a 'special moment' for Rays, MLB

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Rays have just begun to experience Cuba.

By the time the island nation is in the team's rearview mirror Tuesday night, a historic trip will have taken place, in which baseball served as a bonding agent between two countries at odds since the early 1960s.

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Historic Cuba visit
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Sights & sounds
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Santos' sliding catch
Obama greets Jeter
Rays shake hands with Obama
Kiermaier scores game's first run

The Rays will play the Cuban National Team on Tuesday, making them the first Major League Baseball team to visit Cuba since the Orioles did so 17 years ago, defeating the Cuban National Team, 3-2, in 11 innings on March 28, 1999.

Watch a historic live look-in on MLB.com beginning shortly before 2 p.m. ET Tuesday of ESPN's coverage of the ceremonies, first pitches, anthems and more, including the entire first half-inning of the game. The remainder of the broadcast will be available on MLB.TV.

President Barack Obama is also visiting Cuba. Not since Calvin Coolidge did so in 1928 has a U.S. president made such a visit. He plans to attend the game.

"That adds a great dimension to the trip, and it's going to shine an even greater spotlight on the event and on Major League Baseball," said president of baseball operations Matt Silverman.

Sunday morning, a Rays contingent arrived in Sarasota for the team's Grapefruit League game against Orioles. Further north in Tampa, the first of two chartered planes left for Havana. Once the Rays' 8-8 tie with the Orioles concluded, the rest of the group headed for Tampa International Airport to fill the second plane for a late-afternoon departure.

A traveling party of 145 made the trip, including players, coaches, staff, Tampa Bay-area media, and local officials and sponsors.

• Rays tackling logistics for upcoming Cuba trip

Special guests of MLB and the MLBPA include Hall of Famers Joe Torre and Dave Winfield, former New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter, and Cuban natives and former Major Leaguers Jose Cardenal and Luis Tiant.

Monday's activities included a morning press conference in advance of a voluntary workout at Estadio Latinoamericano, the 55,000-seat stadium that will host the game.

Cuban-born Dayron Varona was featured in a different press conference prior to a clinic for kids conducted by Rays players. MLB will host a reception for everyone on Monday night.

Varona on Rays' Cuba trip

Tuesday afternoon's game takes place at 1:50 p.m. ET after a pregame ceremony that will include first-pitch honors shared by Pedro Luis Lazo, a longtime standout for the Cuban National Team and Pinar del Rio, as well as Tiant, a three-time All-Star during his 19-year Major League career.

Chris Archer, who is the Rays' player representative, noted that all players going on the trip volunteered to do so. They will receive $10,000 for their efforts.

MLB sent a delegation to Cuba in December on a goodwill tour, hoping to have a team travel there in March for an exhibition game. A number of teams wanted to be the team that made the trip, but the Rays were the team picked through a lottery.

Stuart Sternberg, the Rays' principal owner, called the Rays' decision to embark on such a trip a "no-brainer," given the team's geographical location and Cuba's rich history in the Tampa Bay area.

"Quite frankly, I think we're the [team] best suited for [the trip]," Sternberg said.

Rays to play Cuban National Team

Archer called the Cuban baseball fans "extremely knowledgeable fans who don't get to see Major League Baseball on a regular basis, but they are extremely passionate."

"So to see their excitement, and in a weird way to reward them for being such diligent fans, is going to be probably the most special thing, and impacting young children's lives," Archer said. "And again, I'm speaking from the team's standpoint and not just mine, but impacting the youths' minds and giving the youths an experience that generations before them never got to experience."

Rays on playing Cuban team

Asked if he understood the historical implications surrounding the trip, Archer said, "I think it may take some time to set in. We may look back 30 years from now, when things are totally different between the two sides, and say, 'You know what? We were a large part in the changes that went on, especially concerning the relationship between our country and theirs.'"

• Rays players, coaches anticipate Cuba venture

Rays manager Kevin Cash believes that the trip arrived at a good point on the Spring Training calendar.

"This is a special moment," Cash said. "… Yeah, we are getting ready for the season, but we can take a couple of days to enjoy this, get to meet some very passionate fans, and go down there and hopefully put on a good show with their team."

As for the exposure the Rays will receive, Sternberg noted: "We're going to have a lot of national attention. … We'll be able to get our brand out there. Will it sell a ticket in our stadium? Absolutely. Will it sell thousands? Maybe. Will it sell millions? No. But it will be helpful."

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