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Rays will play Cuba spring training game — if it happens

Tampa Bay Rays logoThe Tampa Bay Rays will be the team to play a Cuba spring training game — but a game in Havana is far from a done deal.

Several MLB franchises expressed interest in a Cuba game, mostly to showcase their teams in front of the large talent pool of Cuban players. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has been a proponent of such a game, and last month sent a contingent to Cuba to check out Estadio Latinoamericano (also known as Gran Stadium), the grand old lady of Havana ballparks. The verdict: the playing field needs some work. Not a surprise; there have been plenty of reports about playing fields not being in the best of shape in Cuba.

As so many teams were interested in a Cuba spring training game, Manfred held a lottery of sorts in his office, and Tampa Bay was the victor. Nice choice, given the Cuban community in Tampa. But the game is far from certain. From The New York Times:

But it is not a foregone conclusion that the game will be played. Major League Baseball still needs to negotiate the terms of the contest with the Cuban government, although in all likelihood, the Rays would play the Cuban national team and the game would be played in Havana….

Taking his cue from the Obama administration, Manfred has made strengthening baseball’s bonds with Cuba a top priority. His top lawyer, Dan Halem, has been working with the administration and the Cuban government to come up with ways for Cuban players to join major league teams in an orderly fashion, rather than by fleeing Cuba in sometimes dangerous boat journeys or by defecting during international tournaments.

And if Cuban players were eventually able to sign with teams under a system supervised by Major League Baseball, the hope would be that the players and their families would be given visas so they could travel between the countries.

Estadio Latinoamericano is where Cuban and American baseball history intersect. It opened in 1946, and the following year hosted Brooklyn Dodgers spring training; the Pittsburgh Pirates would hold 1953 spring training at the ballpark as well. It’s also a former Triple-A International League ballpark, with the Havana Sugar Kings setting up shop there between 1954 and 1960. Owned by the legendary Bobby Maduro — whose name would grace an historic old minor-league ballpark in Miami — the Sugar Kings hosted a notorious pro baseball game on July 25, 1959, where soldiers celebrated the 26th of July Movement with gunfire from the stands, nicking Rochester Red Wings coach Frank Verdi and Havana shortstop Leo Cardenas. The Sugar Kings would end up winning the Little World Series that year, defeating the American Association’s Minneapolis Millers in a series that saw Havana players start a fire in a trashbin at the old Nicollet Park because of the cold temps. The following season MLB Commissioner Ford Frick ordered the Sugar Kings be moved to Jersey City after Castro nationalized Cuban industries. (That team would end up moving first to Jacksonville and then to Norfolk, now playing as the Norfolk Tides.) In 1999 the Cuban National Team hosted the Baltimore Orioles in a historic game.

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