During the winter of 2013, 25 year-old Dayron Varona found himself on a boat heading toward the small island country of Haiti.
Enduring a 12-hour ride alongside his mother and four others, Varona had successfully and quite illegally left his homeland of Cuba in order to pursue a career in professional baseball, much like many of his fellow Cuban natives who had made similar journeys before.
Varona had successfully defected, but he still had plenty of work to do. Although he didn’t publicly disclose what exactly happened, he was separated from him mother for over a year and didn’t take part in a showcase until January of 2015. During an interview in 2016, Varona looked back upon the experience.
“It’s a memory that you don’t want to remember. A very difficult trip. But thank God that I’m here and I have the opportunity that I do.”
During the showcase, Varona drew plenty of attention as there were reportedly over 70 scouts at the exhibition, representing almost every team from around the league. Varona displayed a stellar arm that could be rated a 70 and was certainly his best tool.
Defense was Varona’s defining attribute, even though during his days as a member of the Cuban national team Varona had hit .312/.376/.470 with 38 HR over 1,504 plate appearances from 2008 to 2014.
Varona served mostly as a backup outfielder as one the younger players in Cuba, but was in line for the starting center fielder job in 2015. However, instead of gracing the rocky confines of Estadio Latinoamericano, Varona signed a minor league contract with the Tampa Bay Rays.
During his days as a member of the Cuban National Team, Varona received 109 pesos per month, which is equal to roughly $4 USD. The Rays would sign him to a deal that gave him a signing bonus that was approximately 416566.67% more than what Varona made during one year in Cuba.
Upon finally securing a contract in professional baseball, the now 27-year old Varona was assigned to the Charlotte Stone Crabs in the Florida State League (Single-A+). Varona was clearly more advanced than his vastly younger competition in the league and scorched opposing pitchers (for the record: 185 wRC+ over 15 games).
The Rays quickly promoted Varona to Double-A Montgomery where Varona would spend the remainder of the 2015 season, finishing the year with a solid line of .264/.310/.458 with 10 HR over 303 plate appearances with the Biscuits.
During that offseason, the Rays were randomly selected as the team that would play the Cuban National Team in a historic contest that would be held in Cuba’s capital city of Havana with leaders from both America and Cuba expected to be in attendance.
When March came around, the rosters were selected for the historic event and despite not being on the 40-man roster, Varona was chosen to be a part of the Rays squad that would make the short trek from Port Charlotte to Havana.
It had been three years since Varona defected; three years since he had seen most of his close family and friends.
As the Rays arrived in Cuba, Varona’s emotional homecoming was a huge storyline, and rightfully so. He would be the first Cuban born player to play in Cuba post defection in baseball history.
Rays manager Kevin Cash knew what this meant to Varona, and made it all the more sweeter as he announced that Varona would lead off the game for Tampa Bay.
Following some incredible pregame festivities, Varona took his place at the plate and per his teammates’ advice, swung at the first pitch — popping it up harmlessly to first base.
Later in the game, Cash removed Varona from the game while he was in the outfield, allowing Varona to receive a round of applause from his friends, family, teammates, and fans in the crowd.
That was the ultimately high point of Varona’s career as he spent the entire 2016 season in Triple-A Durham, waiting for a promotion that would never come.
During his time with the Durham Bulls from 2016 to early 2017, Varona hit .237/.281/.417 with 16 HR over 136 games. The Tampa Bay Rays would release Varona in May.
Varona would only play one season in the Indy Leagues. Since then, Varona has played in the Caribbean Leagues, but sparingly, and it seems his time as a professional baseball player, has come to an end.
Although Varona never reached the big leagues, he still has his place in both Rays history and baseball history in general as the first ever Cuban defector to return to his homeland and play baseball on Cuban soil.
During those few days in March of 2016, the eyes of the world were on the Rays and Varona and the images of him greeting and embracing his family, friends, and former teammates after years of exile will be forever etched in the minds of those who truly witnessed history.