What historic game in Cuba means to Tampa Bay Rays

Cuba's love of baseball, cigars lives in Tampa

TAMPA, Fla. – Modesto Lopez was born in Asturias, Spain. He followed cigar industry jobs to Cuba and later to Tampa's Ybor City, where his son Alfonso "Al" Ramon Lopez was born.  

When Al wasn't playing baseball, he was delivering bread for the La Joven Francesca bakery, where the Ybor City State Museum is now, a local historian said. 

"When the Cubans came, they brought baseball with them," Chantal Hevia, of the Ybor City Museum Society, said. 

Al would go on to become an iconic catcher, manager and a symbol of the influence that Cuba's love for baseball and cigars has had on Tampa for many generations. 

His destiny could have been to work at an Ybor City cigar factory, but a few years after his father died of throat cancer, Al made his major league debut with Brooklyn. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977 and died of a heart attack in 2005.

To honor his achievements, there was the Al Lopez  baseball park on the north side of Tampa Bay Boulevard. It was built before Fidel Castro took power and the U.S. established the embargo. And now that the U.S. and Cuban diplomats were reestablishing relations, the Tampa Baseball Museum was under construction at his former childhood home.

The Major League Baseball got the Tampa Bay Ray and not the Miami Marlins to play in Cuba. Most of the Cubans in Miami fled Castro's regime. And some still believe the embargo needs to remain in place to punish the Castro brothers, who remain in power. 

Regardless of the politics, Tampa's love of Cuba's most popular game will be in full display during President Barack Obama's historic visit, which includes a face-to-face meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro. 

The Tampa Bay Rays play a pre-season game against the Cuban national baseball team. Tampa Bay Rays catcher René Rivera, who is part of the roster, is from Puerto Rico.

In the Caribbean, Rivera said, children learn to love baseball since they are born. He is excited about the Tuesday game near Havana. 

"It doesn't matter if we win or lose, Rivera said. "What matters is the new friendship we are building." 

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