The American ballplayers in Cuba had heard about a cool scene. So they came to the Hot Corner.
The famed Esquina Caliente — as it's known to the Havana baseball "fanaticos" who partake regularly in nose-to-nose screaming matches about everything from trade rumours to fantasy lineups — is a far, throat-shredding cry from the stately meetings U.S. President Barack Obama is attending during his historic trip to Cuba.
In this impassioned public forum, hands gesticulate wildly. Chests puff up. Spittle flies from mouths debating the merits of Styler Hernandez or Frank Camilo Morejon in rapid-fire Spanish.
Evan Longoria of the Tampa Bay Rays talks to a TV news crew as the team arrives at their hotel in Havana on Sunday. (Rebecca Blackwell/ Associated Press)
Yet here they were, six players with the Tampa Bay Rays, taking selfies and glad-handing with the locals a day before this afternoon's exhibition game against the Cuban national baseball team.
"El Guante de Oro!" one man called to third baseman Evan Longoria, referencing the Tampa Bay Rays star's Gold Glove award. "Picture, picture!"
It was a chance for centre-fielder Kevin Kiermaier to practise his Spanish. Harry Vicet, 65, a Havana taxi driver, wanted to know what positions the Americans filled, and Kiermaier gamely answered. Asked if he spoke the language, the star defensive player pinched his fingers close together: "Un poquito."
Today's game will be one of the most anticipated moments associated with Obama's three-day visit, the first time a sitting president has come to Cuba in nearly 90 years.
If the Florida-based athletes were concerned about a hostile crowd at Esquina Caliente, though, they did not find one.
"Grande, grande!" one impressed local said. He squeezed Rays first baseman Logan Morrison's left bicep. "Fuerte!" he added, pantomiming a bodybuilder.
Surrounded by curious Cubanos, third baseman Longoria was soon accosted in broken English.
"Tell me!" one man demanded. "The Cuban people. How you think?"
The two-time Gold Glove winner was gracious.
"I think they're very nice," he said.
Kevin Kiermaier, centre, greets fans as the Tampa Bay Rays took in some local culture a day ahead of their exhibition game Tuesday against Cuba's national team, in what pundits have described as 'baseball diplomacy.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)
The Tampa Bay players seemed taken by the scene.
"We're playing the Cuban national team tomorrow, and this is where they talk baseball, which is pretty cool," Morrison said. "We just wanted to come and see."
The team's arrival for the exhibition game has become the topic of national conversation.
Cubans consider baseball to be a religion and the island's homegrown talent to be one of its greatest exports.
Although Major League Baseball teams have played in Cuba before, most notably the Baltimore Orioles in 1999, Sebastian Arcos with the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University says Cubans are likely to assign great symbolic meaning to today's game.
"This is an important concept for everybody, particularly in a country where everything including sporting events has been politically manipulated by the regime," Arcos said.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro greet one another at the Palace of the Revolution Monday in Havana. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
But he cautioned against comparing today's game to the Ping-Pong diplomacy that played out in the 1970s, when former U.S. president Richard Nixon visited China and helped to normalize relations.
"There are vast differences between the two trips," Arcos said. "Nixon made an important connection with China in an important moment in time. It was a strategic move, given the emerging importance of China moving away from the Soviet Bloc."
The full extent of the strategic importance of restoring ties with Cuba remains to be seen, Arcos said.
For their part, the Rays have said they look forward to "genuine interactions" with the Cuban public. A shared love for baseball as national pastimes is one step forward.
"This is one of the things that joins Cubans and the United States, beyond politics and history. It's a passion in both countries, and definitely something that could help bridge this gap between the two peoples," Arcos said.
Several regulars at El Esquina Caliente noted that sport transcends politics and said they were proud to host the Americans for a friendly match.
Asked for predictions on the final score, a flurry of shouted responses came in.
Cuban baseball fan Alexi Martinez Herera, 39, struck a more reflective tone. After years of separation between Cuba and America, he said, "the only winner will be sport."
An old car passes a house decorated with the flags of the United States and Cuba on Sunday in Havana. (Orlando Barria/EPA)