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Lasting Impressions of the Rays in Cuba

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A few days have past since the Rays played the Cuban National Team in Havana, Cuba.  They are only the second MLB team to play an exhibition game in Cuba.  It was a game that will forever have it’s place in US and baseball history.

In front of a invitation only crowd of 50,000+, emotions; positive and negative were high.  It’s not everyday that a baseball game makes a political statement to the world, but that is what this game did.  The Rays were seen as a figurative olive branch being used to begin to rebuild the relationship between the Cuba in the United States.  They say time heals all wounds, but not all fans think so.  

The relationship that the United States has had with Cuba is nothing less than complicated.  On March 14, 1958 the United States places an arms embargo against Cuba due to conflict with then communist leader Fidel Castro.  In October 1960, due a a sequence of events the US decided to place an embargo (ban on commercial activity) on Cuba on all goods except food and medicine.  And let us not forget the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.   

I’m not looking to educate you on the history between the United States and Cuba.  I did feel it necessary to mention since it is the basis of much negative opinion of the Rays playing this historic game.  

The Rays are not the only major league team to play in Cuba.  Most recently the Baltimore Orioles played in Cuba in 1999.  In the 1980’s journalist Scott Armstrong had been trying to convince the owner of the Orioles Edward Williams to have his team play a game against the Cuban National Team.  The then MLB commissioner Bart Giamatti was interested but did not live to see it happen.  

In the 1990’s a new owner Peter Angelos and the support MLB Commissioner Bud Selig the idea of playing in Cuba was rekindled.  In January of 1999 President Bill Clinton loosened travel restrictions and March 28, 1999 Armstrong’s dream became a reality and the Orioles played to Cuba.  

The success of Cuban ballplayers such as 2014 Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu intrigued MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and reignited interest in an MLB team playing on Cuba.  Unlike the Orioles, The Rays playing Cuba was chosen at random; a lottery.  Manfred picked a baseball adorning the Rays logo from 29 others in the league. Jackpot! Or was it?

As much of a “golden ticket” as I and many other fans saw the playing of this game to be, there was also a contingency of people that thought otherwise.  One of the more outspoken journalists on the subject is ESPN’s Dan Le Batard, whose is Cuban.  In his article and in an interview he talks about his parents and grandparents growing up under the Castro regime.  Le Batard recounts the experiences of his family members being jailed for their political beliefs and seeing people killed for similar offences.  He said if he felt as if this game and the President Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro would truly make the lives of people on the island better he would support it; but change is something that is not certain.  

There was a protest in Miami on March 20, 2016.  A group of approximately 200 protesters gathered in the Little Havana neighborhood and echoed Le Batard’s sentiment.  Protesters held signs yielding the names of friends and family killed by the Castro regime.  Feelings of betrayal loomed over the crowd as they walked the streets in support of those that no longer could.

There was also a large outpouring of support for the Rays and foreseen change in foreign policy between the US and Cuba.  Many younger Cubans and those that did not live through the violence felt as if the game is an important first step toward the transformation of a the current governing body in Cuba.  They took the same viewpoint as President Obama in thinking that extending this hand of friendship will help build a relationship between the countries and help us work toward a better future for everyone.  A conversation about change can not happen until the barriers stopping it from happening are broken; this game helped them crumble.

Something to note:  For the last 24 years the United Nations has voted on erging the United States to lift the embargo against Cuba.  This year 191 of the 193 member states voted to have it lifted; a larger consensus than any year prior (ironically the US was one of the two that voted “no”).  Although President Obama and President Castro had agreed the “normalize” relations between the countries, only congress can vote to lift the embargo.

I am of the belief that this game was a positive thing the this country, the Cuban people, and the Rays.  The United States stands to benefit from the mending of the bridge by having another country in which to buy/sell goods as well as allowing US corporations to expand operations into a basically virgin landscape.  With the exchange of goods and services comes jobs for the Cuban people.  In addition to an increase in jobs will come American influence on government policy.  I realise this changes won’t happen overnight, but it will be an inevitable result of the partnership and needed in order to maintain working relationship.  As for the Rays, they took center stage in this political dance between two countries with a complicated history.  The saying is that “there is no such thing as bad press” and it’s true the team was the recipient of some, but any team would have gotten the same treatment.  The national coverage the Rays received for going to Cuba and playing this historic game I feel far out shadowed any negative publicity.  Chris Archer shook President Obama’s hand; that was pretty awesome to see on ESPN!
No matter your feelings on the game, that does not negate the history that was made on March 22, 2016.  The meeting of two Presidents, sports icons, and the US got to witness the baseball loving culture in Cuba.  Sports have a way of bringing people together, and I’m proud that Rays got to be a part of it.  

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