Dayron Varona was about to become the starting centerfielder for the Cuban National team when he decided to defect in 2013. The talented outfielder signed with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015 and got as high as Durham (AAA) before he was released in 2017 by the ball club.
But this isn’t where the story ends or even what it’s even about. Varona has the distinction of being the first defector to grace the field of a Cuban ballpark with an MLB ballclub. The native of Camagüey, Cuba led off and played rightfield the day for the Rays in their game with the Cuban National Team on March 22, 2016 in an exhibition game.
Although Varona went 0-2 the Rays managed to defeat Cuba 4-1 on that day, the Cuban’s participation opened up a door for Cuban players and led to opening for Cubans who played in majors for the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Dayron Varona, who is 35 years old, has his place in Cuban baseball history. In 11 professional seasons of which seven were in played in Cuba, he hit .283 with 74 home runs and 399 runs batted in.
How did you feel in your first at bat in Havana’s Latinoamericana against team Cuba?
It was a beautiful experience. I never felt any pressure; I was more overcome by the emotion of the moment than any other thing. During my first at-bat I wanted to hit the ball as far as I could but that didn’t happen. I’m just happy to be the first defector to come back after the triumph of the revolution. It gives me great pride to know that my name will always be etched in Cuban sports history.
What did Frank Camilo Morejon, the catcher for Cuba that day tell during the at-bat?
That he was happy to see me and that, hopefully, things would start to open up very soon.
Did the umpire say anything to you before the first pitch?
He said that the first pitch was going to the Hall of Fame and to swing for the fences if I wanted to.
What is your grandest memory of your time spent in Tampa?
I have two. One of them, of course, was that memorable day in Havana, the other was the day I signed a professional contract with the organization. I sat down and thought long and hard about all the talented players that were not able to sign, it gives me great pride to have been able to sign and make it to where I have made it.