When it came to its relationship with the United States, the island nation of Cuba used to be shrouded in mystery. But this week, with the help of the great game of baseball and President Barack Obama, it'll be the site of long-awaited history.
Baseball and diplomacy get marquee billing in Cuba this week. An American entourage of Major League royalty, including Derek Jeter, Joe Torre, Dave Winfield and Commissioner Rob Manfred, will join Cuban MLB legends, including Luis Tiant, in celebrating the repaired relations between the two countries with a long-anticipated exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team at 2 p.m. ET Tuesday in Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana.
And they'll all join Obama and the First Family from the seats as they witness a diamond display of friendship, goodwill toward humanity and maybe even a few tape-measure home runs. For the first time since Calvin Coolidge did it 88 years ago, a sitting American president is visiting Cuba. And for the first time since the Baltimore Orioles played a similar exhibition vs. Cuba in 1999, an MLB team is taking the field there once again.
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 start of the game. The remainder of the broadcast will be available on MLB.TV.
"We're extremely excited as a group to be a part of this process in the sense where we're part of something that's historic for both countries," Rays ace Chris Archer said. "We're looking to mingle and experience the culture of a place where we haven't been able to travel freely for a while.
"It's really just a great baseball tradition that's there, extremely knowledgeable fans that don't get to see Major League Baseball on a regular basis."
The new tradition will get off to a vibrant start on Monday morning. After a Rays contingent that includes owner Stuart Sternberg, manager Kevin Cash and players Archer and Evan Longoria gets things started with a news conference at the luxury high-rise Melia Cohiba Hotel, Manfred, MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark, Cuban Baseball Federation president Higinio Velez and Commissioner of Baseball Cuba Heriberto Suarez will follow at the podium to discuss this historic meeting. Cuban National Team players Victor Mesa, Yosvani Torres and Yorbis Borroto will then take questions before the Rays hit the Estadio Latinoamericano field for a workout.
On Monday at the ballpark, the Cuban legends will start the late-morning program and will be followed by Torre, Winfield, Jeter, Tiant and Cuban-born former MLB star Jose Cardenal. After that, Rays coaches and Cuban and MLB legends will conduct a kids clinic at Desa Baseball Field before the Cuban team works out.
The Obamas, Hall of Famers Torre and Winfield, Yankees icon Jeter and the rest of the MLB entourage won't be the only baseball luminaries on hand. Cuban baseball greats Orestes Kindelan, Omar Linares, Pedro Lazo and Antonio Munoz also will hold court during a slew of news conferences on Monday.
Tiant, a three-time All-Star during his 19-year Major League career, and Lazo, who pitched for Pinar del Rio of the Cuban National Series from 1997-2009 and won two Olympic gold medals and two silvers, are scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitches on Tuesday, and a six-man crew comprised of Cuban and Major League umpires will work the game.
Tuesday, meanwhile, will be all about game time, with the Cubans and Rays taking batting practice prior to the landmark first pitch, which will be broadcast live on ESPN and MLB.TV.
"For us, it's about spreading goodwill through baseball," Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said. "It's been about 20 years since a Major League team has had the opportunity to play in Cuba. We're excited for the opportunity and to experience firsthand the baseball culture of Cuba."
The seeds of this baseball summit were first sown last July, when the United States restored diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in 54 years. The U.S. now has an embassy in Havana and travel bans have been eased. It's fitting since MLB has seen more and more Cuban players come to America and excel at the game's highest level in recent years. Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler and Red Sox prospect Yoan Moncada are only a few of the Cubans who have become household names to MLB fans.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Treasury recently announced new amendments to sanctions that could allow MLB teams to begin signing players directly from Cuba.
It's a new world for the United States, Cuba and MLB, and it's not lost on the lucky players, executives and fans who will take in this historic game.
"We're excited to go," Cash said. "You get to go down to a country that's extremely passionate about baseball. I know our players are really excited to get down there. Meet the Cuban people and [hear about] their experiences and the joy that baseball brings to all of us.
"Major League Baseball is doing everything it can to make it a memorable event for the players and the staff. And it's going to be a nice little break to make a little road trip, experience a new culture, play a baseball game and then turn our attention to getting ready for Opening Day."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.