Thu, Mar 24, 2016 - Page 20 News List

Obama, Castro watch Rays beat Cuba

BASEBALL DIPLOMACY:The milestone game saw the two presidents in the stands, along with John Kerry, MLB greats, Cuban officials and a capacity crowd

AP, HAVANA

The Tampa Bay Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier doubles in the second inning of a baseball game against the Cuban national team in Havana, Cuba, on Tuesday.

Photo: Will Vragovic / The Tampa Bay Times via AP

When Kevin Kiermaier slid into home for the Tampa Bay Rays’ first run of the day, US President Barack Obama flung his arms wide in the sign for “safe.”

Then he turned to his left and shook the hand of his seatmate and Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro.

The scene was a remarkable milestone for sports diplomacy as the two presidents try to set aside more than 50 years of Cold War hostility during which about the only thing the countries agreed on was a shared love of baseball.

Obama and Castro even joined in when fans were doing “the wave.”

In the landmark game, the first visit by a major league team to the communist island since 1999, the Rays beat the Cuban national team 4-1 on Tuesday.

James Loney homered and drove in three runs, and Matt Moore and the Tampa Bay pitchers shut out the Cubans until Rudy Reyes homered in the ninth inning.

However, the day will be remembered less for the final score than for the two men sitting in the front row at Estadio Latinoamericano, the last stop on Obama’s trip to Cuba this week in a bid to further pave the road toward normalized relations.

The near-capacity crowd roared as Obama and Castro entered and walked toward their seats right behind home plate, waving to fans and greeting other dignitaries.

Chants of “Raul, Raul,” broke out.

Rarely has so much pomp and circumstance accompanied an exhibition game. Former All-Stars Derek Jeter and Dave Winfield and Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred were among the president’s greeters. US Secretary of State John Kerry was also in the VIP box, as well as several of Cuba’s highest officials.

Before the first pitch, Rays players walked over from the dugout to say hello and passed flowers and small Cuban flags through the netting to US first lady Michelle Obama and first daughter Sasha.

“Appreciate you guys,” said the president, clad in a white shirt and sunglasses.

Castro was slightly more formal in a blazer.

Obama shared an extended handshake with ace pitcher Chris Archer, who once was a minor leaguer for the Chicago Cubs. He gave Obama, a White Sox fan, a glove owned by Moore.

The last time a big league club played in Cuba was 17 years ago when the Baltimore Orioles came to the same stadium during spring training.

“We won’t experience anything like this again,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said afterward. “So it’s a very special day for Major League Baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays and obviously all of our players, myself included.”

“It’s really great, you know, this is something that feels like a very big game back home,” Moore said. “I’ve had the opportunity to be in the playoffs a few times and this feels like that kind of an event.”

Both Obama and Castro were gone by the third inning — with Obama heading to the airport to fly south for a state visit to Argentina — but the stands remained packed until the final out.

Reyes, a hometown favorite who plays for Havana’s powerhouse club Industriales, finally gave the fans a reason to cheer with his solo shot.

“It kind of went quiet for a little bit, but then they get something going, you can imagine how loud this place can get when it’s championship baseball,” Cash said.

The day left Reyes imagining something else, too.

“A lot, this game meant a lot, because of the brotherhood there will be from now on” between Cuban and US baseball, the third baseman said.

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