Several Cuban major-league players, including Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu and Brayan Pena, arrived in Havana Tuesday as part of a three-day mission meant to ease relations between MLB and the baseball system in Cuba.
“I’m very happy to be here,” said Puig, embracing his childhood coach.
To no one’s surprise, the player with the biggest group greeting him was the ebullient Pena. The veteran backup catcher has become a fan favorite in Kansas City, Detroit and Cincinnati, through his tireless interaction with them via Twitter.
The Cuban league has been badly hit by its stars defecting to the majors in the past decade, and under the rule of Fidel Castro, the players were erased from the record books and not allowed to return home. Their exploits were even kept out of the Cuban state-run media.
Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, has given the Cuban people more freedom since taking over power, and players like Boston Red Sox infielder Yoan Moncada have been allowed to leave with permission to pursue a major-league career.
The Tampa Bay Rays are tentatively scheduled to play at least one exhibition game in Cuba this fall, and this week’s trip is expected to work toward making that happen. Since Fidel Castro took over the country in 1959, the only visit by a major-league team was a two-game series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team in 1999.
The Orioles won the first game, played in Havana, 3-2 in 11 innings despite eight shutout innings by Cuban star Jose Contreras. Contreras defected three years later and pitched 10 major-league seasons, winning a World Series ring with the 2005 Chicago White Sox.
The Cubans won the rematch at Camden Yards, 12-6.