HAVANA (AP) — Some of Major League Baseball's biggest Cuban-born stars put dozens of boys through batting, pitching and catching drills in a sunny Havana ballpark, part of a three-day mission meant to warm relations between the U.S. league and this baseball-mad nation.
Among the teachers at Wednesday's baseball clinic were Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena and Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu — defectors who were once reviled by Cuban officials for abandoning the communist-run country but who have returned in triumph following last year's historic detente between the Cold War foes.
"We're going to give our best on this visit and we appreciate the opportunity we've been given," said Puig, who left Cuba illegally in 2012. "Everything else we leave to God and destiny."
The return of the defectors on Tuesday 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 fled the country that trained them.
Joined by pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo and other Cuban baseball players who have stayed on the island, the major league stars divided the 10- and 11-year-old youths into five groups and ran them through calisthenics and drills, offering them advice.
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.
The visit is possible thanks to last December's announcement by Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro that their countries were restoring diplomatic ties, opening the door for better baseball relations. The two nations have always shared a love for the game despite their differences.
From the Negro Leagues to the current crop of Cuban stars, the 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.
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.
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ARodriguezAP