PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Cuban outfielder Dayron Varona still does not understand how he has been allowed to join the Tampa Bay Rays roster that will travel to Havana to play in the Estadio Latinoamericano on March 22.
Varona is one of many Cuban baseball players who felt compelled to cross the deadly waters of the Gulf of Mexico in order to achieve the goal of playing baseball in the United States.
But while the majority of his compatriots go years and even decades without seeing their families, Varona will return to Cuba only three years after he defected thanks to a twist of fate that included an invitation to the Rays' spring training.
"Look, it's something that, when I get home, I still can't believe it. I'm set here and I can't believe any of it," Varona told ESPNDeportes.com in an interview conducted in Spanish at the Rays' training facility in Port Charlotte.
"I just can't believe it. When I get off the plane and set foot on Cuban soil, that's when I'm going to believe it."
"I don't know who was behind me going to Cuba," he continued. "I'm part of the Tampa Bay team. I'm in major league training camp. It just happened to be Tampa's turn. I don't know who was behind it. I've no idea. But whoever it was, I'm very grateful to them."
Varona received the news last week that he would be on the Rays' 34-man roster that will travel to the Caribbean island to take on the Cuban national team in an exhibition match. His first call was to his mother, who accompanied him on that terrifying boat journey three years ago.
"It was a very hard decision. Many people have asked me about it and it's something I would never want to go through again; I'd never do it again. It was a decision in a moment of despair," Varona said, before his eyes filled with joy as he recalled the conversation with his mother.
"I told my mom and she couldn't believe it either. She said, 'Are you sure they said you're going,' because she didn't believe it," he added. "She's so excited, you would think it was her that was going to Cuba. She wants to help the whole family. But I told her, 'Mom, I'm going to play baseball.' She wants me to take things over for the whole of Cuba."
All the Rays players who will travel to Cuba to represent Major League Baseball are on the team's 40-man roster, except Varona, who signed a minor league contract with Tampa Bay last year and received his first invitation to spring camp.
As the only Cuban player on the squad, it was an easy decision for manager Kevin Cash, particularly after several players, including star slugger Evan Longoria and young ace Chris Archer, campaigned for Varona's inclusion.
"It will mean everything to him," Archer said when asked about Varona's opportunity to travel with the team to Cuba. "He hasn't seen his family for three years. I hope he gets the opportunity to go running out to the outfield as a starter and have 40,000 or 50,000 fans screaming for him. It will be a surreal moment for him. He's got a lot of guts if he manages to hold back the tears, because it will be a special moment."
"It's amazing," Varona said when asked about the support of his teammates. "Longoria, Archer, the manager and other players on the team, who I've only known for around 20 days, have supported me so that I can go back to my country."
"When I left Cuba, I never thought I'd be able to go back in such a short time and not only go back, but play baseball in Cuba again. I never thought that would happen for me."
Varona remembers watching on television the last time a major league team played in Cuba, in March 1999, when he was about 10 years old.
"I was only young when the Orioles came over. I watched it at home. I saw some of the game and the Latinoamericano was completely packed. It was quite shocking. I said, 'My God, how can so many people fit inside that stadium,'" said the 27-year-old outfielder, who played for Camagüey in the National Series.
"Every Cuban wants to see a packed house at the Latino. It's very hard to fill the Latinoamericano because it holds 55,000 spectators. It's hard to fill the stadium for a regular National Series game, but it will be full on the [March] 22nd, because the people in Cuba know players like Longoria and Archer; they're players that are known all around the world and the Cubans will have the opportunity to see them in the flesh."
Although Varona is confident that this game will be a strong example of diplomacy through a common bond -- the love of baseball -- there is no doubt that he would like to be wearing the opposing team's uniform.
"Cuba is a country that deserves much more than one major league [exhibition] game. The Cuban people deserve more," he said. "They deserve for the players who are currently playing in other leagues, as in my case, to be able to start traveling there again. Hopefully, one day, they'll make the decision that we can represent the Cuban team."