By Peter Orsi
HAVANA — In a landmark game attended by presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro, the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Cuban national team, 4-1, Tuesday in the first visit by a major league team to the communist island since 1999.
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.
But the game will be remembered less for the final score than for the two men sitting in the front row at Estadio Latinoamericano.
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.
As the two countries try to heal more than 50 years of Cold War animosity, Obama and Castro sitting side-by-side was a remarkable sight. Obama wore a white shirt and sunglasses, Castro more formal in a blazer.
The presidents took part when the fans tried to get “the wave” going early. Obama later signaled safe when Kevin Kiermaier safely slid home for the first run, then shook hands with Castro.
This was the first time since the Baltimore Orioles came 17 years ago during spring training that a big league club played in Cuba.
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. 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 first lady Michelle Obama and first daughter Sasha.
“Appreciate you guys,” the president said.
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.
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.
What the game lacked in runs from the home team, it made up for in pageantry.
Loud music and dancers on the field warmed the crowd up beforehand, and tots in tiny baseball uniforms escorted the players out during introductions.
A white-clad choir sang both countries’ national anthems and a flock of doves was unleashed from the centerfield stands. The Cuban and U.S. flags fluttered atop the scoreboard.
The stadium known as “El Latino” got a facelift just before the Rays’ visit, providing a freshly scrubbed backdrop.
“It’s beautiful. The field looks marvelous,” said Guillermo Gonzalez, an 18-year-old university student. “We are celebrating a union between two peoples, between the United States and Cuba. It’s marvelous.”
The stands were notably more mellow than your average Cuban game, where the music, dancing and horn-blowing can be practically nonstop.
Admission was free, and tickets were distributed to Cubans through organizations such as student groups and workplaces. That essentially assured a well-behaved crowd and with no government opponents around to protest.
Maria Ester Mendoza Alvarez, a 52-year-old university professor, agreed that cultural exchanges like this one can help heal geopolitical schisms, but “Forget all the politics — we are going to enjoy this as a game, nothing more,” Mendoza said.
Rays players tossed baseballs to the fans during warmups. During warmups, Tampa Bay pitcher Steve Geltz and others tossed a dozen or so baseballs into the stands.
Then there was a deafening roar as the national team took the field. The fans also sang the “Ole” song popular with soccer fans around the planet.
The trip was also a homecoming for Tampa right fielder Dayron Varona, who was born in Havana and spent seven years playing in Cuba before hopping a boat to Haiti in 2013, and was seeing some relatives for the first time since then.
“This is something I didn’t believe until I hugged my niece,” Varona said Monday after seeing relatives in Cuba. “Because it’s been three years that I don’t see them, and it’s something very thrilling, but also very painful.”
Varona was first to bat Tuesday. He flied out to first, to polite applause.
Luis Tiant, a three-time MLB all-star, and Pedro Luis Lazo, who had a long career with Cuban club Pinar del Rio and the national team, threw out the first pitches.
The stadium observed a minute of silence before the game in memory of the Brussels attacks.