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Love of baseball an eternal link between Tampa Bay, Cuba

in Sports/Top Headlines by

It isn’t that far, really.

Unless, of course, you are traveling through politics.

When the Tampa Bay Rays play Tuesday in Havana against the Cuban National team, it will be only 321 miles away from home. But it goes through old embargoes and the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs and Fidel and Fredo betraying Michael and defectors and a lifetime of hard feelings.

On the other hand, there is baseball.

Cuba has always loved baseball, despite Fidel Castro’s banning of professional sports in 1961. Tuesday, the Rays become the first major-league team to play in Cuba since the Orioles in 1999.

“We’re excited to go,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “You get to go down to a country that’s extremely passionate about baseball. I know our players are really excited to get down there. Meet the Cuban people and [hear about] their experiences and the joy that baseball brings to all of us.”

The Rays have had a bit of history with Cuban players. Their first star was Rolando Arrojo, a pitcher. They had Alex Sanchez, who was the first major-leaguer suspended for performance-enhancing drugs. They had Jose Canseco.

Now, they have Dayron Varona, a minor leaguer who was reunited with his family three years after defecting.

“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,” Varona said. “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.”

The game is at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Matt Moore is the starting pitcher for Tampa Bay.

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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