The Rays in Cuba, the Faces in the Crowd: Photo Essay

In March, the Rays visited Cuba for a historic game. Photographer Megan Miller captured the Cuban fans lucky enough to be there.

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May 18 2016, 7:45pm

In March, the Tampa Bay Rays became the first Major League Baseball team to play in Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition game there in 1999. Following a successful goodwill trip to the country last December by eight MLB players, including Cuban defectors Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu, it seemed like the right time for another run around the diamond.

The announcement of the Rays lineup for the March exhibition solidified another homecoming: that of Dayron Varona, a Cuban-born outfielder who defected three years ago. Megan Miller, an editorial and documentary photographer based in Los Angeles, was at Estadio Latinoamericano to photograph the game. While there, she captured candid portraits of the fans in attendance.

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The game, of course, carried political implications that felt bigger than international baseball operations and the countries' shared pastime. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro were there, sitting next to each other, representing a relationship that neither leader had known in his own lifetime.

But it wasn't the political celebrities at the invite-only game who garnered Miller's attention. She aimed her lens at the fans instead.

"I wanted to know who was at this game and what, if anything, made this one different to them," Miller said. "When I spoke to them and took their pictures, the sentiment seemed to be happy and excited to be sharing this moment with the US and with fellow baseball fans.

"The first thing that stood out to me was that the presence of Obama and Castro meant security was going to be tight. I heard instructions going around that if you weren't inside the stadium by 11:30 AM then you may as well head to the airport, because you weren't going to be allowed in late. First pitch was supposed to be at 1:30 PM, but security wanted everyone in their seats. The directions went further to say that no walking around once inside the stadium was allowed, no noise makers, and I heard Cubans commenting that this sounded like the most boring sporting event in Cuban history. Second, the game was invite-only, which was unlike any game I had ever been to. Anyone couldn't just purchase or register for a ticket, but select Cubans were given invitations, mainly through their government employers.

"After getting into the stadium, much of what I was worried about seemed to be rumor. Security was out in full force; there were special X-ray machines brought that security kindly let my film bypass. But after everyone was wanded and pat down, we entered a more normal world of baseball. People could move about; fans blasted noise-makers, waved flags, and purchased snacks at concession stands. On one side of the stadium, behind the visitors dugout, there was the obvious section of Rays fans, many important community members and baseball fans from the Tampa–St. Pete area wearing light or navy blue.

"On the other side, directly across, seemed full of the more notable government officials and their families. Between those two small sections, though, despite the invite-only policy, seemed to be many long-time baseball fans who had been rooting for the Cuban national team, the Industriales, and even the now-defunct Metropolitanos—the baseball teams of Havana—for a long time."

"I was very moved, because this goes to show that sports are a route to unite the people, have the friendship, and eliminate the differences," said Victor Sanchez Oña, who works for the Cuban telecom company ETECSA, which provides all land-line, cell-phone, and internet service in the country. A known lifelong baseball fan, he received his invite to the game through his work.

"The encounter between Cuba and the United States is very good," another fan named Jesus Pristo Ramos said. "This is a new opening for lots of good things for both countries. It's wonderful."

Words by Valentina Valentini.

Lucio Morales

Jesus Pristo Ramos

Jennifer and Darian

Edgar Larrinaga

Angel Luis Hernandez

Orlando Lecay

Guanche De Bauta

Carlos Hernandez

Rigoberto Perdomo

Mayra

Sofia

Ibrahim Bandera

Pedro Jorge

Jonathan and Juan

Victor Sanchez Oña