HAVANA, March 1 (Reuters) - The Tampa Bay Rays will become the first Major League Baseball franchise to play in Havana since 1999 when they face Cuba's national team in an exhibition this month coinciding with a historic visit by U.S. President Barack Obama.
The March 22 game, announced by MLB on Tuesday, has been planned for months. Major League Baseball, the organization that runs professional baseball in North America, said in November it would choose the Rays as the team to play in Havana if it could make a deal with the Cuban Baseball Federation.
"During a time of historic change, we appreciate the constructive role afforded by our shared passion for the game, and we look forward to experiencing Cuba's storied baseball tradition and the passion of its many loyal fans," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.
Obama will attend the game, a senior White House adviser said in a tweet late on Tuesday.
"Charting new #CubaPolicy means stronger ties between Cubans & Americans - we all share a love of baseball," tweeted Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser.
The game will be played at the 45,000-seat Latin American Stadium, site of a 1999 exhibition between the Baltimore Orioles and Cuba's national team. It has been undergoing improvements, including installation of a new infield, under MLB supervision.
The game takes place 15 months after a thawing of relations between the former Cold War enemies. Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed to normalize relations in December 2014 and the two sides restored diplomatic ties and reopened embassies in Havana and Washington last year.
Obama's visit on March 21 and 22 will mark the first by a sitting U.S. president since 1928 and the first since Fidel Castro's rebels overthrew a pro-American government in 1959.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Rolling Stones said they would perform a free outdoor concert in Havana on March 25, a milestone in a country where the Communist government once banned the group's music as an "ideological deviation" .
The exhibition game also comes during an effort in both countries to halt the defection of Cuba's best players. There were a record 150 baseball defections in Cuba last year, according to Cuban journalist Francys Romero.
In the latest blow, two brothers from Cuba's pre-eminent baseball family, Yulieski and Lourdes Gurriel, abandoned a Cuban team traveling in the Dominican Republic in February.
Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation lack an agreement on player transfers because of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. As a consequence, Cuban players with big-league aspirations have defected.
Ranking the best MLB uniforms
MLB uniform rankings
Tampa Bay Rays to play in Havana during Obama visit
30. San Diego Padres
Did you know the Padres made a bunch of changes to their uniforms a few seasons ago? No? That’s probably because they have the most nondescript jerseys in all of pro sports. They’re bland, safe, and not particularly memorable. And that’s a shame, since the Padres have a totally unique color scheme just sitting there waiting to be used again. They wear the brown occasionally as a throwback, but it’s way beyond time to bring them back full time.
(Photo by Andy Hayt/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)
29. Houston Astros
The Astros: when uniform redesigns go terrible wrong. Their current set is nothing special, a boring look that doesn’t do justice to the team’s colorful history. It’s almost as if they were too concerned with making the uniforms look like throwbacks and ended up looking like they tried too hard. The cap with the star and ‘H’ logo is nice, at least. But the Astros have such a fun, weird uniform heritage it’s too bad they don’t do more to call attention to it.
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
28. Arizona Diamondbacks
Purple and teal may have been a lousy color combination, but at least it was unique to Arizona. Then they went to red as their primary color and made their look totally generic. The wordmarks on their uniforms look off, too: the lettering looks almost cartoonish and makes the whole thing look too busy. Just a totally forgettable uniform.
(Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
27. Tampa Bay Rays
Their primary logo looks like it should belong to a solar panel company. Their uniforms look like a generic team’s uniforms you’d find in a baseball video game that doesn’t have an MLB license. And since they use a little sunburst logo on the jersey, does that mean the team name refers to rays of the sun? Or is it still the fish? Either way, their entire uniform set is a sterile, boring mess.
(Photo by Yuki Taguchi/MLB Photos)
26. Cleveland Indians
Cursive lettering at home, block lettering on the road, except for the cream colored home alternate that has block lettering, but not the blue alternate that has cursive lettering. Got that? The Indians have been tweaking their look for a while now and the results haven’t been great– they need to pick a look and stick with it. And if they’re really moving away from using Chief Wahoo, can they at least come up with something better than the generic block ‘C’ logo they’ve saddled themselves with?
(Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
25. Milwaukee Brewers
No team needs six different jerseys, which is what the Brewers currently have at their disposal: a home, a road, a home alternate, a road alternate, a different alternate, and a throwback. It’s just too much, and it might be time to ditch the look they’ve had for 15 years and go back to their ’80s look. The glove and ball ‘MB’ logo is still one of the best ever, it’s time to bring it back for good.
(Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
24. Texas Rangers
For some reason, none of the Rangers’ four different jerseys actually say ‘Rangers’ on them; instead, they all say ‘Texas.’ That’s really strange, considering it’s not a very long name and could easily fit on the front of a home jersey. The lettering they use is unnecessarily complicated too, with points and curves that look out of place. They could use some streamlining.
(Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images)
23. Minnesota Twins
They’ve updated their look but they don’t quite hit the mark. They’re perfectly nice and acceptable but seem almost sterile in a way– there’s nothing special about them. It’d be nice if they used their throwback alternate as the primary home jersey, since it has character. It’s a shame they didn’t retire the ‘Twins’ wordmark they use on their actual home uniform since it looks outdated.
(Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
22. Colorado Rockies
They haven’t changed their look much since they entered the league in 1993, and there’s something to be said for that. The home jersey is a modern classic, striking the right balance between too much purple and just enough. The same can’t be said for their road jersey that doesn’t use enough purple and looks generic, or for their purple nightmare of an alternate jersey that takes things a bit too far. They could both use a redesign.
(Photo by Yuki Taguchi/MLB Photos)
21. New York Mets
Just when the Mets do something smart and finally ditch their awful black jerseys and black trim, they go and add a camo alternate jersey because…uh, they really support the military? Who knows. Camo jerseys aren’t a great look to begin with and it doesn’t make sense for teams to add them to their regular rotation. And it’s too bad, because the Mets have sharp home and road designs. Their blue alternates are nothing special, though, and bring the whole set down a notch.
(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
20. Miami Marlins
Love it or hate it, the Marlins have a uniform that is uniquely theirs and they get points for that. It’s a shame they don’t wear their road greys anymore since it’s such a nice looking jersey. In fact, none of their jerseys are particularly bad. They all very much read South Beach in their color scheme and appearance. It’s a shame they didn’t fully embrace the South Beach look and use neon pink as one of their colors. People would’ve lost their minds.
(Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
19. Atlanta Braves
Their home and road uniforms are classics, but the Braves have way too many alternates to choose from. Do they really need a retro alternate home jersey when their regular home jerseys are retro-inspired to begin with? Plus there’s the blue-on-blue jersey that just doesn’t look right, and the red one with the ‘Braves’ wordmark in a stars and stripes pattern for some reason. Just too much.
(Photo by Brian Garfinkel/Getty Images)
18. Seattle Mariners
Their new throwback jersey is quite nice, but they’re another team suffering from uniform overkill. They already have teal and blue alternates to go with the new throwback, so why not get rid of one of those? They all seem unnecessary. Plus they made slight changes to their road jersey that makes it seem too busy. A nice uniform set, but a crowded one that could use some trimming.
(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
17. Washington Nationals
A great color scheme and a logo that references DC’s baseball past give the Nats a very nice set of tools to build a great uniform. It’d be nice if the home uniform actually said ‘Nationals’ on it instead of the cursive ‘W’ though. And their blue alternate with the ‘W’ logo in stars and stripes looks a little garish. Definite room for improvement here.
(Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
16. Cincinnati Reds
A very clean, classic look that would be even better if they’d drop the black drop shadow from their uniform lettering and dump the overly ornate number style. Both of those things only serve to bog the whole look down, but those could easily be fixed. One of the best alternate jerseys in all of baseball, too.
(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
15. Los Angeles Angels
Another nice set that has arguably become the franchise’s defining uniform. The one issue is their alternate, which uses red lettering on a red jersey; not exactly a great look. It’s still a solid set, though it’d be funny to see them try to fit ‘Los Angeles of Anaheim’ on the road jersey. They’ll probably keep the ‘Angels’ wordmark instead.
(Photo by Matt Brown/Angels Baseball LP/Getty Images)
14. Kansas City Royals
It gets hard to separate teams in this section, since all of them have perfectly good uniforms that aren’t outstanding but also don’t have much wrong with them, either. The Royals fall into this category, though they get bonus points for their powder blue alternate that is a nice callback to the George Brett era with a modern day twist. Plain but effective.
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
13. Oakland A’s
Green is a nice color, which makes it surprising that the A’s are the only team to feature it prominently. They’ve done a great job keeping their look traditional, as the home and road jerseys haven’t changed much at all in 30 years. The yellow alternate they recently introduced is fantastic, but the green version of it misses the mark. They’d be better served going back to the green jersey with the full ‘Athletics’ wordmark rather then just the ‘A’s’ version. Still, a very strong set.
(AP Photo/LM Otero)
12. Pittsburgh Pirates
After years of messing around with their look, the home and road jerseys are flawless. They’re representative of the Pirates’ history while keeping them modern, something that isn’t always easy to pull off. The black alternate jersey is just okay, and they wear it so often it takes away from their overall look. And like the Mets, the Pirates have added a camo jersey for some reason which drops their overall ranking. Ditch the camo and wear the black less often, and this is a top five set.
(AP Photo/Al Behrman)
11. Detroit Tigers
One of the best home jerseys around, even if the old English ‘D’ doesn’t match the one on their cap. But it’s a classic look that’s been around for as long as the Tigers have been around, and it’s one of the best in the game. Their ranking has more to do with their road jersey, which has never been able to match the home jersey in terms of prestige. And it doesn’t help that the Tigers have changed it a number of times, either, going from block to script, changing the striping on the sleeves and around the neck, using triple colored lettering unnecessarily, etc.
(AP Photo/Nick Wass)
10. Chicago Cubs
Like the Tigers, the Cubs have a great home jersey and a boring road jersey that they’ve tinkered with over and over again but just can’t get right. The home version is pretty fantastic though, and their alternate jersey with the walking cubbie bear logo is about as classic as alternates get. If they could only get the road grays right.
(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
9. Chicago White Sox
If you grew up in the early ’90s, you probably remember all of your friends wanting a new White Sox cap. It was fresh and bold then, and not much has changed now. The ‘Sox’ calligraphy logo is still one of the best in the game and their jerseys still look crisp. If you had to find fault somewhere, it’d be a team called the White Sox uses an awful lot of black in their uniforms. That’s a minor quibble, though: this is still a great set.
(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
8. Los Angeles Dodgers
Not much has changed since the Dodgers moved west in 1958. The home uniform still looks like the one Jackie Robinson wore in Brooklyn, and while the road jersey has gone through a few changes they finally settled back with the ‘Los Angeles’ wordmark rather than ‘Dodgers’ and that makes a huge difference. They did bring back the ‘Dodgers’ gray jersey as an alternate last year and the team seemed to wear that more than the primary road, and that’s a concern. Still, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these uniforms.
(AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
7. San Francisco Giants
The Giants use all of their jerseys to pay homage to their history: the home and roads are throwbacks to the 1960s, the orange alternate with the ‘Giants’ cursive wordmark pays respect to the ’70s, and the ‘SF’ road alternate is straight out of the ’80s. All of them are very nice, though they added unnecessary piping to the road jersey a few years ago that brings it down a few notches. And with news of a new, black alternate jersey being added this year, the Giants are quickly falling into “too many uniforms” territory. But is too many uniforms a problem if all of them are nice?
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
6. Toronto Blue Jays
When you see the blue and white split lettering, you immediately know it’s a Blue Jays jersey, which makes it all the more curious the Jays went away from that for so long. No matter, since they corrected the mistake and went back to their defining look. Maybe it’s nostalgia talking, but it’s one of the best uniforms in baseball. The home and road looks are great, and the alternate is even better. Here’s hoping they don’t screw it up again.
(AP Photo/Steven Senne)
5. Baltimore Orioles
The return of the smiling bird logo put the O’s over the top. There was nothing wrong with their ’60s inspired full bird logo, but it was stiff and kind of boring. Bringing back the smiling bird finished off what was already a great uniform, with bold wordmarks that aren’t overly flashy and great use of the orange and black color scheme. It’s also nice to see ‘Baltimore’ on the road jerseys again. A fantastic, timeless look that they should stick with for a long time.
(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
4. Boston Red Sox
They finally came to their senses and ditched the boring road jersey with the ‘Boston’ wordmark in single color blue, going back to the version that has ‘Boston’ in red outlined with blue. That makes a huge difference and compliments the rest of their set, which was already one of the best. Their home uniform is perfect, right down to the way ‘Red’ and ‘Sox’ are spaced on either side of the buttons down the middle. The red alternate jersey can probably go away, but it’s not that bad and doesn’t bring the entire set down like some other alternates would. These are just plain great uniforms.
(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
3. Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies’ uniforms are always underrated, and it’s hard to see why. Another modern take on a classic look, it’s tough to find fault in any part of their uniform– even the pinstripes work for them. The numbers on the sleeves are also a nice touch, something that is unique to the team without feeling like a gimmick. And their cream colored throwback alternate jersey is beyond fantastic.
(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
2. New York Yankees
What can you say? The jerseys have barely changed in 100 years and they won’t for the next 100 years. Even if you don’t like the pinstripes, you have to respect the history and tradition of the Yankees’ uniforms. The road jersey is still a thing of beauty, simplicity at its best. And there’s something to be said for them not giving in and adding an alternate jersey all these years.
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
1. St. Louis Cardinals
The best uniform going today, from their crisp home whites to the road grays, and especially their cream colored alternate. Everything about the Cardinals uniform is top notch and it’s hard to find fault in their look. It’s a classic that doesn’t look or feel outdated, and like the Yankees one that will last for another 100 years. The perfect uniform.
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Discover More Like This
BACK TO SLIDE
MLB has applied for special permission from the U.S. government to allow teams to sign players in Cuba and is awaiting a response. Approval would permit MLB to negotiate a player-transfer agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation.
Cuba has embraced baseball as its national game since the late 19th century, and the passion is shared by Fidel Castro, a baseball aficionado and former pitcher in recreational baseball.
Cuba has produced some 200 major leaguers over the decades, including former Cincinnati Reds slugger and Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Perez, three-time batting champion Tony Oliva, and celebrated pitcher Luis Tiant.
Cuba has long been a force in international tournaments, winning three Olympic baseball gold medals and silver the other two times the sport was included in the Summer Games.
The Cubans were also runners-up to Japan in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006 when their amateurs competed against top players, including professionals, from other nations.
In recent years, some of Cuba's best players have fled, primarily by boat, to establish residency elsewhere and become eligible for the major leagues.
Notable Cubans currently signed to lucrative MLB contracts include Yasmany Tomas of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Rusney Castillo of the Boston Red Sox, Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets.