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Reflections on the Rays ambassadorial trip to Cuba

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In the midst of political strife and hardship, this day was about hope, peace, and unbridled passion for a game we all love.

Tampa Bay Rays, Dayron Varona, who defected from Cuba in 2013, is hugged by members of the Cuban National team after an exposition game at the Estado Latinoamericano March 22, 2016 in Havana, Cuba.
Tampa Bay Rays, Dayron Varona, who defected from Cuba in 2013, is hugged by members of the Cuban National team after an exposition game at the Estado Latinoamericano March 22, 2016 in Havana, Cuba.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The significance of the Rays' trip to Cuba wasn't just that the Rays beat the talented Cuban National Team 4-1.

No, this isn't about baseball, or at least it's not only about baseball. It was a chance for a nation that lives and dies by baseball to proudly showcase their passion in a big way to an even bigger audience.

This game represented an olive branch to the Cuban government from the US, but it was also a statement to the Cuban people saying that we hear you, we see you, and we know of your struggles.

President Obama said, "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"

Help From the Rays

Rays officials and players didn't come empty handed.

Rene Rivera and his wife personally organized 50 school care packages for Cuban children and team officials came with crates of gear.

Chris Archer made a lifelong fan by playing catch with 9 year old Diego, son of a stadium groundskeeper, and met with people on the streets.

The Rays organization, including pitching coach Jim Hickey and first base coach Rocco Baldelli, held an instructional camp for young Cuban players, which will no doubt be an leave a deep impression on those who attended.

Do you think we'll see a young man crack the major leagues ten years from now and say that this camp gave him confidence to pursue his dream?

Sure, you might say, but in the face of the poverty and political repression that we know are characteristic of Cuba these are small gestures.

True, but they are not insignificant gestures.

This is not just about baseball. Its about the players and the fans.

This crowd at yesterday's game, 55,000,  was the largest that any MLB team has played in front of for many years, and they had the fervor of a World Cup match.

The crowd roared when Cuban CF Ronal Santos made a diving play to take away a hit from Brad Miller, and was possibly the loudest when a double was hit down the RF line when the Cuban national team was down 4-1.

This country is proud of its team, and speaks very passionately about baseball.

When Chris Archer visited the "hot corner" in Havana, he was blown away by the Cuban peoples' knowledge of his stats, as well as the history of the game and its players. What better way to begin the mending of a rocky relationship than with a game so passionately shared by both American and Cuban citizens?

The Reach of the MLB

This is not just about baseball. It is about hope.

From the MLB's perspective, it's about taking the first steps to ensure the well being of Cuban ballplayers. It's about increasing MLB exposure and, yes, "brand" to new markets.

This isn't the first trip the MLB has made to the island country either. This past December, baseball executives, along with Cuban defectors Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Bryan Pena and Alexei Ramirez, took a goodwill trip to Cuba.

During the trip, the MLB players organized baseball clinics and a fundraising event for the people of Cuba.

Photo By Rob Tringali

Bryan Pena on the MLB's good will trip to Cuba. Photo By Rob Tringali

And MLB will return.

How might this relationship develop?

Conversations have centered on the possibility of Manfred hosting more Spring Training and Exhibition games on the island, possibly having a series between two MLB teams in Cuba.

A bigger MLB presence in Cuba would certainly have an beneficial economic impact, but it would also benefit the people of Cuba through a number of MLB community outreach programs such as RBI, Pitch, Hit & Run program or any number of the MLB charity programs.

Manfred and the MLB also want to ensure that there is a better competitive balance between the teams in signing international free agents, including those from Cuba.

For Rays players, this has been a once in a lifetime experience.

There is no doubt that this will generate team chemistry for the Rays, and even though it is difficult to measure the effects of team chemistry in relation to the win column, even skeptics will admit that a cohesive team can often be a more successful team.

This trip was especially important to Rays prospect Dayron Varona, who becomes the first Cuban born player in history to defect from Cuba and return to play on Cuban soil.

The broadcast noted that the Rays players, after noticing Varona was not on the 40-man roster, planned and supported a petition to have Dayron Varona play in today's game. Kevin Cash was already planning on bringing Varona, pending security clearance, but was very happy to see the players rally and support him.

The Rays players all seemed to understand that this was not just about baseball. It was about being part of a global community that can overcome differences to share the fundamental joys of the game. In the midst of political strife and hardship, this day was about hope, peace, and unbridled passion for a game we all love.

Thankfully, this day was about baseball.