HAVANA (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.
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.
Additional reporting by Eric Walsh; Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frank McGurty, Frank Pingue and Peter Cooney