The Tampa Bay Rays became the first Major League Baseball team in 17 years to play a game in Cuba, defeating the national team, 4-1, in an exhibition in Havana on Tuesday.
James Loney provided the fireworks on the field, driving in three runs for the Rays, two coming on this home run in the top of the fourth inning, as Baseball Tonight highlighted:
ESPN Stats & Info relayed the last time an MLB player accomplished what Loney did Tuesday:
The Rays also got a terrific start from Matt Moore, who is looking to rebound from a poor 2015 in which he finished with a 5.43 ERA in 12 starts after returning from Tommy John surgery. The left-hander hurled six shutout innings against Cuba, allowing six hits with three strikeouts and one walk.
Cuba outhit the Rays, 9-5, but couldn't keep moving the line to get any runs across against Moore. There were highlights for the Cuban team, though, particularly during the first at-bat of the game. This catch from center fielder Roel Santos drew quite the reaction from a notable fan in attendance, per SportsCenter:
While the final result on the field certainly held importance to the enthusiastic crowd in attendance, the game was about far more than just baseball.
Never was that more apparent than before the game, when United States President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro took their seats in the front row to prepare for the first pitch, captured here by DRays Bay:
Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were restored last year following a 54-year embargo dating back to 1961.
Before the game, Obama wrote a letter on ESPN.com about why today's game was so important in the bigger picture:
That's what this visit is about: remembering what we share, reflecting upon the barriers we've broken -- as people and as nations -- and looking toward a better future. Because while I will not ignore the important differences between our governments, I came to Cuba to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.
There are certainly substantial differences between the U.S. and Cuban governments that are not going to resolve themselves overnight. Time will hopefully lead to changes in that regard. This was about the power of sports and baseball as a unifying force.
Former MLB pitcher and Cuban native Luis Tiant concluded the pregame festivities by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, via the Boston Red Sox's official Twitter account:
Rays outfielder Dayron Varona, who defected from Cuba three years ago and signed with the team in 2015, had an emotional reunion with his family, captured in this image on Monday by Baseball Tonight:
Varona led off the game, grounding out on the first pitch he saw, and received a nice ovation from the crowd.
It was a light and fun atmosphere at the Estadio Latinoamericano, as is often the case during a baseball game. Obama even took part in one of the oldest fan traditions at a sporting event, per Joe Perticone of the Independent Journal:
Even though this was ultimately an exhibition game that didn't count in the standings, Obama seemed to be invested in what was happened, per Jon Morosi of Fox Sports:
The Rays deserve a world of credit for being open to playing a game in Cuba and so willingly welcoming the opportunity, a point not lost on MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred when he was interviewed on the ESPN telecast (via MLB.com's Richard Justice):
No one was doing a better job of promoting the game and having more fun than Rays pitcher Chris Archer, who continues to be an awesome person to have around even when he's not playing in the game.
As Josh Vitale of the Charlotte Sun noted, Archer seemed to be enjoying his moment with the president and first lady Michelle Obama:
There was an amusing interview with Archer on the ESPN telecast in which he described part of the conversation with the president and first lady, via Faizal Khamisa of Sportsnet:
Luckily, Archer didn't seem too upset about the president needing a brief introduction to his credentials.
Another famous face in the stands was former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who in his usual way did an interview without saying much of anything. One notable item Jeter did address is the ever-expanding gulf between "old-school" and "new-school" players, as Pinstripe Alley shared:
Jeter is right about MLB being better with personalities. Archer, Bryce Harper and Jose Bautista are some of the league's best and most exciting players. Let them be who they are, especially if it helps the game reach new audiences.
In many ways, that was the metaphor for this game. Cuba is a baseball haven, and being able to bring MLB back to the country after a 17-year absence will only increase the fervor around the sport. The score didn't matter as much as the feeling and emotion attached to it.
After an historic day on the field, Archer told MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez about his interaction with the Obama family:
I met the president and the first lady [Michelle Obama], and the first question I had for the first lady was why she didn't respond to me on Twitter. Apparently, they don't look at it as much as we do. It was awesome. [President Obama] complimented me not only on my ability but the way I carry myself and the way I speak. Coming from him, there's really no higher compliment.
Archer was also complimentary of the first lady, saying, "I wanted to express my gratitude [for her work] with the youth in the community, and I made sure to tell her that anytime she wanted some help, I would be on board."
Speaking on his outing, per Sanchez, Moore felt he wasn't as consistent as he needs to be: "There definitely was not a lot of feel for what I was doing out there. I was just trying to get them out. As the innings went on—after the second the inning—it felt like things dialed in a little bit better."
Moore did add that his overall experience was "something that I will definitely never forget."
Rays manager Kevin Cash told Sanchez that this was likely a once-in-a-lifetime moment for everyone with the team:
We won't experience anything like this again, so it was a very special day for Major League Baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays and all of our players, myself included. Most of the guys here have played winter ball in some capacity, but this is winter ball times 10 over here, with the passion the fans showed.
Everyone with the Rays seemed to be happy about taking part in this experience as well as being ambassadors for Major League Baseball. The day was, by all accounts, a massive success that will hopefully lead to more games like this taking place in Cuba.