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Americas

Baseball brings Cuban defector Dayron Varona home for the biggest game of his life

A Cuban baseball player's exile to America and unexpected return to his family in Havana is a fitting symbol of reunion for two baseball-crazed countries. On Tuesday, it's time to play ball.

The following tweet is from Evan Longoria, a star professional baseball player for the Tampa Bay Rays in the US state of Florida.

On the left-hand side, third from the front, is Longoria's teammate, Dayron Varona, a Cuban national.

Varon left the island nation in 2013, determined to pursue a baseball career in the United States. He'd previously played in Cuba's national amateur league, the Serie Nacional.

His decision had enormous consequences: It meant exile from the country he'd grown up in. He was defecting, which could lead to a permanent travel ban. Most importantly, it meant he wouldn't be seeing family members - potentially for decades.

Still, he followed his dream. Dozens of Cuban baseball players had defected before him with some landing contracts in the tens of millions of dollars, including former New York Yankees pitcher Jose Contreras, New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, and newly-acquired Yankees pitcher Aroldis Chapman.

It didn't work out that way for Varon. After Tampa Bay signed him, he was assigned the team's minor league affiliate in Charlotte, North Carolina. He moved up the farm system to another affiliated team in Montgomery, Alabama after 15 games, but entering preseason camp in March, he was not expected to play in the senior team this year.

He was happily surprised, then, to find out that he'd been invited for an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba's national team as part of

US President Barack Obama's historic visit to the country.

Still, he worried that immigration politics might foil the trip to his home country and to his family.

"When I get off at the airport and reach the soil of Cuba, that's the moment I'll believe," he told the Spanish-language division of American sports broadcaster ESPN.

As takeoff loomed, he composed just the second tweet of his life.

The stock image translates roughly to "I'm off."

When he landed at the airport, it was finally time to "believe." After meeting some family members there, more awaited at the team's hotel.

Baseball Tonight, an ESPN television program that covers the sport exclusively, captured the emotional reunion:

His team also tweeted a video:

Still, some wondered: Would he actually play in the game scheduled for March 22? On the one hand it would seem fitting, given the journey, but on the other, wasn't he slotted in as a reserve player, after all?

At a press conference Monday morning (21.03.2016), Rays manager Kevin Cash made clear where he stood on the issue of Dayron Varona playing in the game - reported here in a series of tweets from Tampa Bay Times reporter Marc Topkin:

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro will attend Tuesday's game, the capstone of

a three-day visit after decades of isolation.

However, when Varona appears as first player to bat - and in the biggest game of his life - expect the politicians to be easily drowned out by the roar of 55,000 Cubans in the Estadio Latinoamericano, the heart of the baseball nation.

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