Major League Baseball back in La Habana

This article was written by Leonardo Palacios, a junior journalism major at the University of Maryland College Park. Palacios loves sports, especially Baseball. He can be reached on Twitter at @leosuave_

Baseball is America’s pastime and the king of all sports in Cuba. The United States and Cuba have been on opposite sides of the spectrum for decades, but baseball would bring the two countries together yesterday afternoon in the midst of President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba.

The Tampa Bay Rays faced the Cuban national team in an exhibition game at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana. Major League Baseball has not played in Cuba since 1999 when the Baltimore Orioles faced the Cuban national team.

The game had many prominent spectators such as Derek Jeter, Joe Torre and Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie Robinson. President Obama and President Raúl Castro were also spectators and sat next to each other during the game.

The game began with Dayron Varona hitting leadoff for the Rays. Varona is the first Cuban player to defect and return to play in Cuba. Ever. Not Tiant, the Hernandez brothers, Chapman or Céspedes.

How did he manage the emotions? Varona swung on the very first pitch and hit a pop up. Varona received a warm ovation from the Cuban crowd prior to his first at-bat. He said that he was happy to still be treated like a Cuban by his own people.

The Rays led the game 4-0 through 8 innings. James Loney homered and drove in three of those runs. The Cuban national team scored its only run of the game in the bottom of the ninth inning following a homerun from Rudy Reyes. The Rays won the game, but baseball won the day.

The game itself was much bigger than a simple preseason exhibition game. It held potentially huge political ramifications. The game played into the scene of normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba. The Obama administration, looks to lift the embargo placed on Cuba in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy. The visit by President Obama to Cuba was the first by a U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge.

There were mixed emotions about normalizing relations in the Cuban-American community. Generally, the younger generations are distant from the issues and do not have a problem with normalized relations, but the older generations still hold strong emotions and disdain for the Castro regime. They still suffer from wounds which caused them to flee their homeland. Dan Le Batard even went as far as to compare Castro to Hitler.

Others such as ESPN’s Eduardo Pérez, son of MLB Hall of Famer Tony Pérez, were more happy about the game as long as it helped unify all Cubans.

The MLB hopes to establish healthier relations with Cuba so that more MLB games can take place in Cuba in the future. MLB wants to establish a legal pipeline that would allow future Cuban players to join the MLB without defecting and fleeing to the United States as many prominent Cuban players have done throughout the years.

Baseball plays a huge part in the lives, culture and tradition of the Cuban people. There is a unique love and passion for the game, which was noticeable via the cheers, “ole” chants, dancing and sounding of during the exhibition game. The country takes pride in their players, at home and abroad. There is hope that the Rays vs. Cuba game will lead to a better future for the Cuban people. Social media was also buzzing about the game.

The Rays landed in America Wednesday morning. Major League Baseball has not scheduled another game in Cuba as of yet, but until then…