PEORIA, Ariz. — Mariners center fielder Leonys Martin looks at Tampa Bay’s upcoming trip to Cuba for an exhibition game and can’t help but feel envious and a bit homesick.
"That’s one of my dreams," said Martin, who defected from his homeland nearly six years ago. "Being away, it’s hard. I went to Cuba this winter (for a few days), but it’s hard to be away. I hope this game will help make that easier."
The Rays are playing the Cuban national team on March 22 at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana. President Barack Obama is expected to attend in what stands as yet another step in the thawing relations between two countries.
"It’s going to be great," Martin predicted. "Cuban people know a lot about MLB. It’s going to be a good experience for both teams. I can tell you this, the fans in Cuba are really going to enjoy it. They’ll be great to the Rays’ players."
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The game marks the first visit to Cuba by a major-league team since the Baltimore Orioles beat the Cuban national team on March 28, 1999.
It follows a good-will visit last December by a group of eight big-league players that included Mariners outfielder Nelson Cruz, a Dominican native, and four former Cuban defectors: Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Alexei Ramirez and Brayan Pena.
"Everywhere we went," Cruz said, "people recognized us, even though we hadn’t been in Cuba. Whenever we went to restaurants or different locations, everybody was very nice."
Cruz said the Rays are in for a memorable time.
"It’s going to be crazy good for those guys," he said. "The fans there are looking forward to this because it hasn’t happen in a while. The whole country has high expectations because it’s a baseball game.
"That’s what they do all year round there. They love baseball. It’s a real passion for the game that they have."
Commissioner Rob Manfred pointed to Cuba’s baseball heritage recently in a statement announcing the Rays’ visit.
"During a time of historic change," he said, "we appreciate the constructive role afforded by our shared passion for the game. We look forward to experiencing Cuba's storied baseball tradition and the passion of its many loyal fans."
Cruz said the tour provided him with a deeper appreciation for what Martin and other Cuban defectors have endured in leaving their homeland to pursue their dreams of playing in the big leagues.
"For those (Cubans on the tour)," he said, "it was the first time they had been back in a while. They had a chance to meet their families and enjoy the country. I can only imagine what it must be like for those guys.
"I was thinking, `If I hadn’t been able to go to the Dominican for five or 10 years, what would it be like?’ It was definitely an emotional moment for them."
Martin said he expects his countrymen to be partisan but respectful.
"Oh, it’s important (to the Cuban people) to beat a major-league team," he said. "I don’t know if they can do it. I don’t really know much about the players on the (current) Cuban team, but it’s going to be a great experience for those guys.
"No matter who wins, it’s going to be great for the Cuban people."
Outfielder Guillermo Heredia, another Cuban defector, made his debut by entering Friday’s game as a defensive replacement.
Heredia, 25, is recovering from a twisted ankle suffered in a recent workout in minor-league camp. He agreed Feb. 22 to a major-league contract with the Mariners after defecting from Cuba in 2015.
***Left-handed reliever Charlie Furbush threw from flat ground and, barring any setbacks, will throw one more session of live batting practice against minor-league players before making his spring debut.
While all signs point to a full recovery, Furbush hasn’t pitched in a game since July 7 because of biceps tendinitis and a small tear in his rotator cuff.
***Utilityman Luis Sardinas is nursing a sore calf from a cramp in Thursday’s victory over the Cubs. He is expected to play Saturday in one of the split-squad games.
Former Mariners infielder Willie Bloomquist made it official Friday that he is retired. He sent out a series of twitter posts to that effect: "Farewell @MLB. Thank you for 14 amazing seasons. It's been an incredible ride."
Bloomquist, 38, hasn’t played since getting released last July by the Mariners. He played 1,055 games while batting .269 in a 14-year career with the Mariners, Royals, Reds and Diamondbacks.
That places the King as a second-choice pick with three other pitchers behind Boston lefty David Price, who is a 4/1 favorite. Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer, Cleveland’s Corey Kluber and Chicago’s Chris Sale are also pegged at 6/1.
Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera, a two-time winner, is 12/1.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners