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Rusney Castillo hopes MLB exhibition will pave way for future Cuban players

"Right now, players who are able to come over here, we have to take a lot of risks," Rusney Castillo said of defecting from Cuba. "Hopefully the next generation of Cuban players can come over here without that risk." Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

JUPITER, Fla. -- Last year, when Major League Baseball began to discuss the idea of sending a team to Cuba for a spring training game, the Boston Red Sox let it be known they were interested in making the trip.

Rusney Castillo might have even been the first player to board the plane.

Never mind that the 28-year-old left fielder defected from Cuba sometime during the winter of 2013-14, leaving behind his parents and a young son. And forget about whether the circumstances of his departure would have prompted a negative reaction among any of his countrymen upon his return.

Given the opportunity to go home again, Castillo wouldn't have thought twice.

"Just thinking about it," Castillo said Monday through translator Daveson Perez, "it's something that makes me very emotional."

So, although Castillo is expected to play Tuesday when the Red Sox face the Miami Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium, his thoughts likely will be on the exhibition game taking place 275 miles away in Havana. The Tampa Bay Rays will play the Cuban national team, marking the first time a major league team has visited the island since the Baltimore Orioles played there in 1999.

It's a significant event, not only because it will be attended by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, players' union chief Tony Clark and even President Obama. Relations between the U.S. and Cuba have improved dramatically over the past year, and the way Castillo sees it, baseball could play a role in helping to lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba entirely.

Because of that embargo, which has existed for more than 50 years, MLB teams aren't allowed to sign players from Cuba's Serie Nacionale. As a result, Cuban players have been forced to defect, an often dangerous process that has included harrowing tales of escaping by sea, by air or even via human smuggling.

Castillo, like many other defectors, has declined to share his story since he signed a seven-year, $72.5 million contract with the Red Sox in August 2014. Perhaps he fears repercussions for associates who helped him escape. Or maybe he's concerned for the well-being of his relatives still in Cuba.

Regardless, he hopes the Rays' visit will help pave the way for the full-fledged opening of Cuba, making it safer for future players to fulfill their dream of playing in the States.

"I heard about Obama landing in Cuba [on Monday], and it's great to me because it's a step in the right direction," Castillo said. "Right now, players who are able to come over here, we have to take a lot of risks. Hopefully the next generation of Cuban players can come over here without that risk. I'm looking forward to a day where the average Cuban can come to the United States, just like us baseball players who have come here to play baseball. I think [baseball] can open a lot of doors to that."

Castillo was 11 when the Orioles faced the Cuban national team at Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano, too young to remember their 3-2 victory, which included seven strong innings from Scott Erickson, a homer by Charles Johnson and a go-ahead single by Harold Baines in the 11th inning.

Since then, several Cuban players have defected, including Jose Contreras, Yunel Escobar, Kendrys Morales, Alexei Ramirez, Jose Fernandez, Jose Iglesias, Aroldis Chapman, Adeiny Hechavarria, Roenis Elias, Yoenis Cespedes, Jorge Soler, Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Castillo and Yasmany Tomas.

Manfred told reporters this week he hopes the renewal of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba will eventually allow MLB to collectively bargain with the players' union for a safer, more civilized system of allowing Cuban players to realize opportunities in this country while compensating Cuban teams for the loss of those players.

"I think the relationship between Cuba and the United States is going to elevate the play of the Cuban players," said Castillo, who batted .318 with an .883 OPS over five seasons with Ciego de Avila in Cuba's Serie Nacionale. "Being that they will hopefully have the chance to come over here and play more frequently, the competition among them is going to be stiffer."

In time, perhaps other MLB teams will travel to Cuba for exhibitions. The Rays were chosen from a group of teams that volunteered, including the Red Sox, so there's clearly interest to do this again.

And maybe then Castillo will get to go home again.

"First of all, I would just love to go back to Cuba," he said. "Second of all, I would love to go back with my team. I think of so many memories I have from growing up over there and being able to see my family again and be with them and hang out, it would be very special for me."