<
>

President Obama expected to attend Rays-Cuba exhibition game

The Tampa Bay Rays will travel to Cuba to play the Cuban National Team in an exhibition game on March 22, and U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to be in attendance.

"Americans and Cubans share a love of baseball, and this is yet another powerful reminder of the kinship between our peoples as well as the progress we can achieve when we leverage those natural ties," a White House official said Tuesday.

The announcement of the president's planned attendance was first made on SportsCenter. The game will be televised on ESPN and ESPN Deportes. SportsCenter and Outside the Lines begin live coverage March 20 of the Rays' trip to Havana.

Major League Baseball and the MLBPA officially announced the exhibition in a release earlier Tuesday evening. It will be the first visit to Cuba by an MLB team since the Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition game there against the Cuban National Team in 1999.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said in the release that his team was "privileged" to visit the country on what would be a "memorable and significant" trip, a sentiment echoed by league commissioner Rob Manfred.

"Major League Baseball is excited to play in Cuba and to have the Tampa Bay Rays representing our 30 Clubs," Manfred said. "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."

Manfred drew the Rays on Nov. 13 from a bin of teams that wanted to make the trip. U.S. teams played spring training games in Cuba before Fidel Castro's revolution, but none appeared there from March 1959 until the Orioles faced Cuba's national team in Havana in March 1999.

"We're extremely excited as a group to be a part of this process," Rays pitcher Chris Archer said. "In a sense, we're part of something that's extremely historic for both countries, and looking to mingle and experience the culture of a place where we haven't been able to travel freely for a while."

Hundreds of workers on Tuesday were at the Latin America Stadium, built in 1946 and said to have a seating capacity of 55,000. They are fixing the roof, repairing damaged seating areas and grooming the field surface.

Workers with jackhammers broke up damaged pavement outside, and painters brightened the stadium exterior.

"We're excited to be part of this trip. For us, it's about spreading goodwill through baseball," Matt Silverman, the Rays' president of baseball operations, said on a conference call. "We're excited for the opportunity and to experience firsthand the baseball culture of Cuba.

"Logistically, there will be some challenges. But the players' association and Major League Baseball worked hard to minimize the disruptions. Our first priority is getting ready for opening day. And we worked hard to make sure that this trip won't interfere much, if at all, with those preparations."

Fewer than 40 players will make the trip, but the Rays have yet to have in-depth discussions about the composition of the roster, Silverman said.

"We've been working with Major League Baseball and the State Department to figure out the visas and the exact size. It hasn't been finalized yet," he said. "It'll be a traditional traveling baseball party, and then a number of our front office will also be attending. There will be a few special guests. But the contingent won't be that large. It can't be larger than the two planes we're going to take down there."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.