On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Rays became the first MLB team to play an exhibition game in Cuba in 17 years.
Scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m. ET, the game was delayed for President Barack Obama, who arrived with his family at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana at approximately 1:49 p.m. ET.
The First Family sat in the front row behind home plate with Cuban president Raúl Castro. They were greeted by a number of MLB ambassadors, including Derek Jeter, Joe Torre, Dave Winfield and Jackie Robinson’s wife Rachel, who traveled to Cuba with the First Family on Air Force One.
Before the first pitch, the Rays players lined up behind home plate to shake hands with the President. Pitcher Chris Archer joked with POTUS and chatted up the First Lady.
“I’m proud of you guys,” Obama said as he shook hands with the players.
Obama joined the ESPN broadcast team in the third inning. He said the visit to Cuba and the exhibition game have given the United States more leverage and a larger platform to advocate for the Cuban people.
“Ultimately, this is about goodwill and a recognition that people are people, but we can’t forget that there are larger stakes involved with this,” Obama said.
The President reflected on the social and cultural impact of Jackie Robinson, who played with the Brooklyn Dodgers when the team held spring training in Havana in 1947. He said, “If you think about Jackie Robinson playing in this ballpark a couple months before he breaks the color barrier in Major League Baseball . . . that’s the power of baseball—that’s the power of sports—it can change attitudes sometimes in ways that a politician can never change. That’s a legacy that all of us have benefited from—black, white, Latino and Asian. It taught America that it’s the skills, it’s the talent, it’s character—not the color—that matters.”
Obama also commented on this morning’s terrorist attack in Brussels while acknowledging the significance of baseball in helping America recover from the September 11 and Boston Marathon attacks. He credited David Ortiz for addressing the crowd at Fenway Park following the Boston Marathon attack as one of his fondest memories in office.
“There is something about baseball that is so fundamentally woven into our culture,” Obama said. “In some ways, at a time in our lives where everything is a mile a minute and kids are on their phones all the time and there’s just this constant stream of information, there’s nothing like going to a ballpark. Everything [slows down] a little bit and the rhythm of the game gives you a sense of appreciation for all the blessings we have.”
Speaking to ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian about his meeting with the President, the Rays’ Archer said, “He told me he appreciated how thoughtful I was in my interviews and speaking about our opportunity to be here. It’s probably the highest compliment I’ve had in my life.”
On the field, Rays outfielder Dayron Varona batted in the leadoff spot. The 28-year-old from La Habana became the first player in MLB history to defect, then later return to play in Cuba.