HAVANA (AP) — More than 100 Cuban boys wearing the uniforms of local baseball teams stood in rows, smiling nervously Wednesday as they got tips and training from some of their major league idols — men who were born on the island and were once disdained by the Communist government for defecting to the United States.
Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena and Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu were among those who ran 10- and 11-year-old Cuban players through a three-hour skills camp on the second day of a three-day mission meant to warm relations between Major League Baseball and Cuba.
Joined by pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo and other Cuban baseball stars who have stayed on the island, the major league stars divided the youths into five groups and ran them through calisthenics and batting, pitching and catching drills. And they offered their advice.
"We're going to give our best on this visit and we appreciate the opportunity we've been given," said Yasiel Puig, who left Cuba illegally in 2012. "Everything else we leave to God and destiny."
Eleven-year-old Yassel Veranes grinned widely as he waited for the clinic to begin. "It's my dream to be here to see them," said the boy, who was brought to Havana's Latinoamericano Stadium by his father, Elio Veranes, who watched the proceedings with pride.
The official return on Tuesday of baseball defectors earning millions in the major leagues was a landmark in the new relationship between Cuba and the United States and a dramatic manifestation of Cuba's shifting attitude toward the hundreds of players who have abandoned the country that trained them.
One year ago this week, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced that their countries were restoring diplomatic ties, opening the door for better baseball relations between the countries.
Cuba and the United States always have shared a love of baseball, despite deep political and ideological differences over the years.
From the Negro Leagues to the current crop of Cuban stars, the communist island and the U.S. are linked by century-old baseball ties.
During their current trip, Major League Baseball Players Association executives planned to talk business with their Cuban counterparts, saying they were optimistic about sealing a deal by early next year for the Tampa Bay Rays to play two spring training games in Cuba. They also hope to make progress toward creating a legal route for Cuban players to make their way to the major leagues.
"There's some hurdles to negotiate, there's no question, and hopefully this trip of goodwill will make the conversations work better," said Major League Baseball chief baseball officer Joe Torre.
When they weren't getting tips or training, the boys asked their idols to sign baseball, or have their photograph taken together.
Pena, dressed in his St. Louis team jersey, said he was happy "to come back to see my family, to share with them."
The player said he also enjoyed meeting with his young fans in Havana. Another clinic was planned Thursday in Matanzas, east of the capital.
Traditionally, Cuban state television has avoided airing games featuring defectors but fans watch their idols' performances on pirated recordings distributed on computer USB drives. Most sports experts agree that the future does not look bright without a solution to the problem of baseball talent fleeing the country. But fans who gathered to see the Cuban baseball stars said their return to the island filled them with optimism.
U.S. teams played spring training games in Cuba before Castro's revolution but none appeared here from March 1959 until the Baltimore Orioles faced Cuba's national team in Havana in March 1999. MLB has not returned since.
Under Castro, a passionate baseball fan who saw sports as an expression of national glory, defectors were banished from official memory, never mentioned on Cuban television even as they made headlines on U.S. sports pages.
Castro's brother and successor, President Raul Castro, has eased the treatment of players who leave as part of a broader relaxing of social controls. That included the 2013 removal of a required exit permit for all Cubans, except those considered essential to the country.
Some major league players have since been allowed back on low-key trips to see family. A few others, like star infielder Yoan Moncada, have received permission from Cuban authorities to depart legally to start careers in the United States. Moncada agreed to a $31.5 million signing bonus with the Boston Red Sox in March.
Cuba also has been allowing some stars to legally play in countries such as Japan and Mexico during the offseason. Similar policies for the major leagues would be far more difficult due to the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and Cuban fears that broad legalization of departures to the U.S. would make the talent drain even worse.
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ARodriguezAP