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)
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)
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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.