President to be on hand for exhibition between Rays, Cuba
By Jesse Sanchez
HAVANA, Cuba -- Estadio Latinoamericano, Cuba's most famous stadium and one of the most celebrated ballparks in the world, has never looked so good.
There's new glistening grass in the infield and in the outfield, and more than 500 tons of new mix on the warning track. The dugouts have been rebuilt, the clubhouses have been touched up and the damaged stadium roof has been repaired.
The 70-year-old stadium is freshly painted blue and gleams like new, living up to its nickname: The "Grand Stadium of Havana."
Estadio Latinoamericano is the perfect venue for the perfect game in this perfect moment in time. Today's game between the Rays and the Cuban National Team will be played with the thawing relations between the U.S. and Cuba as the backdrop and Barack Obama, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, in the stands.
Watch a historic live look-in on MLB.com beginning shortly before 2 p.m. ET 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.
"I may not understand the language, but the one thing I do understand is the language of baseball, which I feel like is a religion here in Cuba," said Hall of Famer Joe Torre, MLB's chief baseball officer. "The passion we have experienced from fans has really been hard to describe, both in December and so far on this trip. I look forward to [Tuesday's] game with a great deal of excitement and anticipation."
Joining Torre on Monday at Estadio Latinoamericano was an All-Star cast that included Dave Winfield and former Yankees captain Derek Jeter, along with former Major Leaguers Luis Tiant and Jose Cardenal, who are from Cuba. This week's events also feature Cuban legends Orestes Kindelan, Omar Linares and Antonio Munoz. Chronicling the event is Jeff Idelson, president of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, and photographer Jean Fruth.
"I have had the pleasure of playing with a lot of Cuban players like El Duque [and] Jose Contreras and playing against a lot of players from Cuba," Jeter said. "Like [Torre] said, there are so many differences between the countries, whether it's location, language or political views, the one thing that is a common thread is we speak the same language of baseball. I wanted to come here and see firsthand the country of Cuba and how passionate they are about baseball."
Jeter wouldn't have to look hard to see the excitement for Tuesday's game.
Less than a 10-minute walk from the stadium, the future of Cuban baseball was on display when Tampa Bay's coaches held a clinic for 75 9- and 10-year-olds at the Estadio 50th Aniversario, a youth league park that honors the Cuban Revolution. The outfield sits in the shadow of some of Cuba's most recognizable buildings on Revolution Plaza, but the future, not the past, was the focus of the clinic.
"Look at that. We have Major League instructors teaching our kids, and this is something we will never forget," said Carlos Martin Alvarez, a youth baseball coach in Havana. "Our kids dream of playing in Cuba, but maybe one day they start thinking about the Major Leagues. I never thought we would see this, so you never know what can happen in the future. Maybe these are the kids who have a different future and have a different reality than the players in the past."
In Parque Central, in old Havana, the streets near the National Theater were lined with people waiting to catch a glimpse of President Obama. About four yards away, several groups, some with as many as 25 to 30 men, gathered in Cuba's famous La Esquina Caliente to debate the state of Cuban baseball on the island and abroad.
First things first: The Cuban fans believe that their beloved Serie Nacional, the island's top league, is deteriorating because of the defections in recent years and a lack of resources. Yes, they miss seeing such stars as Jose Abreu, Aroldis Chapman and Jose Iglesias roam the fields, but they are proud to see them do well in the U.S., and they actually prefer to see their best players play in the Major Leagues.
Baseball brings them joy, but also a measure of sadness, because the fans feel their favorite sport is faced with a crisis. One fan, Antonio Castro -- who is not related to the ruling Castro family -- equated his favorite sport's fight to survive with his country's struggle to stay relevant in changing times.
"We hope we can get better in the future," said Castro, who carries Jeter and Mariano Rivera baseball cards in his wallet. "We are hopeful."
Fans in La Esquina Caliente would love to see their country represented by Cuban Major Leaguers in the next World Baseball Classic, even if that means some of the island's current stars do not make the cut. Fans expect the national team to put up a good fight against Tampa Bay, but they are left to wonder what their squad would look like if so many of their players had not defected. From 2008-14, at least 47 Cuban ballplayers defected to the U.S.: 19 big leaguers, including five All-Stars. Among the Cuban players to watch on Tuesday are Jose Adolis Garcia, Yunier Cano, Yosvani Alarcon, Livan Moinelo and Guillermo Aviles.
Part of Tuesday's game is designed to focus on a system for Major League Baseball teams to acquire talent. The first pitch will also accomplish something much less significant: La Esquina Caliente will finally be silent, because most of the fans will watch the game on television.
Back at Estadio Latinoamericano, the Cuban team prepared for the game under the watchful eyes of fans; Cuba's national choir, which is scheduled to perform the anthems; and about 50 of the 650 workers who helped renovate the stadium over the past three months.
"Baseball has such a stronghold in our world, and using it as a bridge to connect nations is incredibly poignant," Idelson said. "This is a historical moment, not just for baseball but also for these two countries."
Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.