The Tampa Bay Rays are set to embark on a journey that spans much more than the 270 miles that separate their spring training facility in Port Charlotte, Florida, from Havana, Cuba.
Three-time All-Star Evan Longoria and ace Chris Archer will lead the 34-man roster that will make the historic journey across the Gulf of Mexico for a game at the Estadio Latinoamericano on March 22. It will be the first visit to Cuba by an MLB club since the Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition game against the Cuban national team on March 28, 1999.
“For us to have that opportunity now is very special,” Longoria said. "Not only because Americans have not had the chance to get in [to Cuba] in quite a few years, but also because of the cultural similarities and the love of baseball that unites us.
“One of the common denominators in both of our countries is baseball being the national pastime,” Longoria continued. "So I think it’s going to be a historic day for us and we’re really looking forward to it. We’re going there to be immersed in their culture, and to experience what it is like to play a baseball game there.”
Archer sees the visit as a way to pay tribute to the love of baseball that permeates the island.
“For lack of a better term, I see it as rewarding a very ‘diligent' fan base," said Archer, who was named the Rays' Opening Day starter. “They’re very passionate about baseball and they don’t get to see Major League Baseball very much, if at all. Being able to give them the gift of Major League Baseball -- even though I am not going to be playing -- but I’ll be there, interacting, slapping hands, taking some pictures with some people, and really just rewarding them for being such diligent fans."
Longoria is especially looking forward to competing against the Cuban national team. In 2007, the Rays slugger helped Team USA win its first International Baseball Federation World Cup in Taiwan, ending Cuba’s 33-year reign. Longoria scored two runs in the USA's 6-3 win over Cuba.
“I remember being a little intimidated because at that time we were playing against guys you hear about,” Longoria said. “And there’s a mythical belief about Cuban players and how they train and how they’re prepared over there.
“It was a little bit intimidating,” Longoria continued, "but we had a really good ballclub that year, a bunch of guys who played in the big leagues. It was a great experience. It was just neat to play against a Cuban national team that was so good for so many years and to finally beat them.”
He continued: “The guys who we’re fortunate enough to see come over [from Cuba] and play in the major leagues are a very talented group of players. I assume there will be no shortage of good players over there. I am most excited to see the enthusiasm and excitement from the Cuban people in the stadium and on the streets; they probably have been waiting for a day like this for quite a long time. I’ve heard that they’re very excited for this to happen, as are we.”
Archer, 26, expects the moment they call out his name and “el número veintidós de los Rays de Tampa Bay” at the Estadio Latinoamericano to be one of the most memorable of his career. And he will get to do it in front of President Barack Obama, who is set to become the first American president to visit the island nation in 88 years. Calvin Coolidge is the only sitting president to visit Cuba (in 1928), though Harry Truman visited the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base –- a United States territory -- in 1948.
“I feel like we’re blessed to be able to go and to be able to share space with the President of the United States,” Archer said. "Regardless of your political views, you have to be excited to meet him and to actually be around him, because it’s something that most people don’t get to do.
“It will probably be similar to the reception we got at the All-Star Game last year, but I think the energy is going to be definitely a playoff-type environment because they don’t get to see it very often. So this is going to be a nice treat for them. And I can’t wait to be a part of it.”