According to several media outlets, the Rays were recently selected to be Major League Baseball’s representative in a 2016 exhibition game in Cuba. Apparently, there was a lottery, and the Rays won.
No team needs to play in Cuba more than the Rays. Maybe Major League Baseball realizes that. Perhaps the winning lottery envelope was frozen before Manfred selected it.
Whatever the cause, the result is the best thing the Rays could ask for. I’ve often written how important the Central Florida Latino community is to the Rays. The Cuban demographic is a big part of that community, especially in Tampa where some zip codes are nearly 20% Cuban. and according to Wikipedia, over 80,000 Cubans live in Tampa. That’s 2.8% of the Tampa Bay population of 2.8 million. As comparison, the active military population in Tampa is only approximately 14,000 and the Rays have done a lot to embrace that community.
The Rays should make a big deal out of this. This is a team that has a section of their stadium (the Party Deck) decorated like Tampa’s oldest Cuban community (Ybor City).
I would hope the Rays begin conversations with Tampa’s Cuban community before their trip. I hope they build relationships in Ybor and other Cuban areas. Maybe even play some local exhibitions against Tampa’s Cuban teams. Getting the community excited will only increase the hype of the game. Hopefully the local media will build up the trip with comments from Tampa’s Cuban community leaders. So far, they haven’t acknowledged the game’s potential importance, at least not as much as the New York Times, who broke the story.
Tampa, too, has a significant Cuban imprint, but it predates Castro, and as a result there is not the same bitterness toward the Cuban government long associated with Miami.
Indeed, Tampa now sees itself as playing a key role in establishing stronger ties with the island, and the Rays’ participation in a spring training game would reinforce that notion, though the team plays its home games next door in St. Petersburg.
The reason the Rays need Cuba is because they need to expand their fanbase reach. Both they and the Marlins need to tap into the international community for fans. According to my demographic post in 2014, there are over 2 million baseball fans in Florida who are not from the United States. Many of them hail from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and South America – countries where baseball is very popular. These fans might have families and friends back home.
I’m curious how the Rays trip to Cuban will go. Of course, the doomsday crowd will claim the sky is falling and the Rays will stay in Havana. But the reality is is that the trip offers the Rays a great opportunity to expand their market to a much needed region.
Keep in mind, in the last few months, Commissioner Manfred has refused the Braves offer to relocate, repeated that Tampa Bay is a viable MLB market, and now offered the Rays a chance to increase their fanbase and reach.
Major League Baseball has given the Rays the opportunity. It’s time for the Rays to step up.