Cuba's famed 'Hot Corner' gets visit from baseball greats

MLBPA looking to grow game in Cuba (1:45)

Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark explains the importance of MLB's tour in Cuba and trying to find a safer way for players from Cuba to be allowed to play in the majors. (1:45)

LA HABANA, Cuba -- There are few people who know more about baseball than the fans who meet every day at the famous Peña Deportiva in Havana’s Central Park, better known as the “Hot Corner,” where the most heated discussions arise about Cuba’s national sport.

And Thursday afternoon was no exception, when a fan started a lively debate on who has been a better manager for the New York Yankees, Joe Girardi or Joe Torre.

But on this occasion, the discussion had a singular twist of fate, for Torre himself, MLB’s current vice president, was present, and he was also accompanied by three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and star sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Nelson Cruz.

The fan in question was an MLB representative who had accompanied the delegation to the “Hot Corner” so Cuban fans could have the unforgettable experience of talking baseball with some of Major League Baseball’s brightest stars.

“I knew nothing about it, but the truth is, I was really interested in finding a spot to observe the discussion and what was happening. I really liked the enthusiasm, and what made it even better was the players’ reaction,” Torre explained as he concluded his brief Central Park visit, bringing MLB’s three-day goodwill tour to a close.

“I saw Miggy with a big smile on his face, and Kershaw totally had a great time. Nelly too, with his son holding on to his leg, it was phenomenal. A woman even came up to me and gave me a big kiss on the cheek and told me, ‘You’re Joe Torre,’ and I gave her a hug,” he added.

“The thing is, anytime someone recognizes you away from home, it’s exciting. You never know what the reaction will be when you travel outside the U.S. It’s always a mystery, but ever since we got here, they’ve welcomed us with open arms, and it has been much better than what we expected.”

Torre also experienced how the Cuban people exclusively identify him as the manager of the New York Yankees, one of the most popular teams on the island, with whom he won four World Series rings from 1997 to 2007.

“That’s how they see me, they always associate me with the Yankees,” MLB’s vice president of operations observed. “I try to explain to them I work for MLB now, but even when Red Sox fans come up to me to say hi, they tell me they’re sorry, and I tell them it’s OK because now I’m with all the teams. But there’s no doubt the Yankees are a world-famous club, and that’s where I made my career.”

Kershaw thoroughly enjoyed the experience, aided by the translation of a players’ union representative, and he even joked that he’d be thinking of a U.S. starting lineup that could beat Cuba.

“It was a lot fun. It’s obvious they love baseball,” commented the Dodgers' ace, who took part in all the events during the three-day tour. “They asked me to name an ideal U.S. lineup, and I mentioned a few players, but they kept telling me the Cuban team would crush them. I missed quite a few, so now I’ve really got to think about that lineup.”

And of course, Venezuelan star Miguel Cabrera also had the chance to get into a lively conversation about Venezuela’s ideal lineup against Cuba in the World Classic, while Nelson Cruz explained why the Seattle Mariners had such poor results last season.

“They got into the discussion, and it was exciting because that’s how it gets on the streets of Maracay, and in La Pedrera, where we argue about anything baseball-related,” Cabrera stated. “We were calm. Everyone has their point of view, and we respect that, but like I said, the numbers speak for themselves.”

For Torre, the visit to the Peña Deportiva at Havana’s Central Park was a perfect recap of this historic visit to Cuba, the first by Major League Baseball representatives since the exhibition match between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team in 1999.

“It was exciting. That’s all I can say,” he said. “We didn’t sleep much. We’ve been back and forth, very busy, but we’ve been very happy to see what awaited us every day. This visit was much more than we expected.”

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