Jesse Sanchez

Varona makes history in return to homeland

Rays Minor Leaguer first defector to play in Cuba

Varona makes history in return to homeland

HAVANA -- Standing outside Estadio Latinoamericano, only a few feet from the airport-bound bus that would lead him out of his homeland, Dayron Varona signed countless autographs and posed for numerous pictures.

Varona was among the last Rays players to get on the bus after their 4-1 victory against the Cuban national team, and everyone standing there knew why.

Varona gets ovation as he exits

Three years ago, Varona, now 28, defected from Cuba by boat with his mother after eight years in the Serie Nacional, the island's top league. On Sunday, he returned home to his country and was greeted by family and friends in an emotional reunion at the hotel.

On Tuesday, Varona led off for the Rays and made history by becoming the first Cuban defector to return and play in his home country.

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"It was something that was a very emotional experience and one that I won't forget," Varona said. "It was great to hear the fans, the way they received me like a Cuban, and that's what I hoped for. It was very emotional."

Varona, who started in right field and went 0-for-2, received an ovation when he was introduced and another -- including from his teammates -- as he stepped in to lead off the game against Yosvani Torres. He swung at Torres' first pitch, popped out to first base and returned to a dugout full of high-fives.

Varona beamed with the pride of a man playing in front of his people.

"I'm a Cuban. I made a decision to leave, but I'll always be a Cuban," Varona said. "I'm a Cuban in the United States or Caracas or wherever. I'm a Cuban."

Before the game, the outfielder met Cuban President Raul Castro, who was seated behind home plate next to U.S. President Barack Obama.

Varona welcomed back to Cuba

"I've never had the chance to be so close to a president before, and it was a very meaningful experience," Varona said. "I hope somebody was able to get a photo so I can get it."

Where Varona starts the season is to be determined. He split last season, his first with the organization, between Class A Advanced Charlotte and Double-A Montgomery. A non-roster invitee to Spring Training, Varona was included on the 34-man roster that traveled to Cuba at the suggestion of Tampa Bay stars Chris Archer and Evan Longoria.

For now, count Varona as one of the happiest players on the team bus.

"I hope it meant a lot, because it meant a lot to all of our players to get to experience this with him," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "I know he's been extremely appreciative of all the guys. You can't knock the smile off his face right now."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB. Joe Trezza contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.