Prospect will bat leadoff in Rays' historic game Tuesday
By Joe Trezza
Tampa Bay Rays prospect Dayron Varona stepped on his native Cuban soil for the first time in three years Sunday, unaware of all that was waiting. Upon his arrival amid a roster of 34 players the club has sent to Havana, Varona was greeted by his family at the team hotel in one a heartwarming moment. Now his homecoming is poised to feature another watershed moment.
Varona, a 28-year-old outfielder, will bat leadoff for the Rays against the Cuban national team on Tuesday, manager Kevin Cash announced Monday.
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 thought it would be really smart and just a great thing for Dayron to be able to play," Cash said. "We know he'll have some family in the building."
Varona, a non-roster invitee to Rays camp this spring, isn't on the team's 40-man roster. He was added to the club's travel squad for the trip at the suggestion of some of the team's best players, including Chris Archer and Evan Longoria.
"It shows how much passion we have for being here and how much we care about Dayron to allow him this opportunity," Cash said.
The Rays are the first Major League Baseball team to play in Cuba since the Orioles made the trip 17 years ago, when they defeated a Cuban All-Star team, 3-2, in an extra-inning game on March 28, 1999. The Rays are bringing in tow with them a cavalcade of American ambassadors that includes President Barack Obama, Derek Jeter and Joe Torre. Obama became the first sitting president to visit the country since 1928.
Even with all that star power present, some of the spotlight has turned to Varona, whose story serves as a microcosmic example of the struggles many Cuban players face trying to transition to Major League Baseball. Varona was born in the province of La Habana and played eight seasons in the Cuban National Series, where he earned the equivalent of $4 a month. He defected by boat with his mother in 2013 before signing with the Rays, and he split last season, his first in the organization, between Class A Advanced A Charlotte and Double-A Montgomery.
Varona wasn't granted clearance to return to Cuba until the day before the Rays departed. He was ecstatic to learn he could participate, and he was emotional when embracing his family Sunday, surrounded by flashbulbs.
"Once we got here and the reaction we saw from the family of Dayron Varona, I think it made everything worthwhile," Cash said. "Thirty minutes after we got to the hotel, this whole thing became a huge positive. Everything else is kind of just icing on the cake."
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.