MLB heads to Havana as live games return to BT Sport

Live baseball returns to British TV screens this week with two games to watch.

ESPN in the States starts to cover a few Spring Training games once we get to the latter stages of the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues. On Monday, they are broadcasting a game between the Boston Red Sox and St Louis Cardinals and BT Sport/ESPN in the UK will be picking up the feed with coverage starting at 17.00.

The Red Sox are scheduled to send plenty of ‘name’ players to the game, including starting pitcher Clay Buchholz. He has been a frustrating figure for Red Sox fans in recent seasons by mixing occasional brilliance with more regular rubbish. Spring Training stats don’t count for much, so we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on him allowing 6 walks in 5.1 spring innings so far, but it would be encouraging to see him hitting his spots and generally starting to gain some sharpness as the regular season approaches.

Fine tuning is what spring training is all about and so you could consider the games as a whole to be relatively meaningless.

That will not be true for the live game on Tuesday. The Tampa Bay Rays’ trip to Havana to play the Cuban national team is absolutely packed full with meaning, much greater than a mere game of baseball.

President Obama’s visit to Cuba is gaining headlines across the world and it is fitting that a baseball game is part of the overall occasion. Whilst baseball may be referred to as ‘America’s National Pastime’, it has long been an engrained part of Cuban culture.

The political situation between the two countries has meant that Cuban players have had to defect from their homeland, often taking great risks in doing so such as in Orlando ‘El Duque’ Hernandez’s fabled boat trip, to play in the Major Leagues. Current Yankees pitcher Aroldis Chapman famously scarpered from a Rotterdam hotel in 2009 whilst his team was competing in the World Port Tournament, unfortunately for me just a couple of days before I got there to take in some games.

Most recently, at the start of February Yulieski Gourriel – long seen as the best position player in Cuba – and his younger brother Lourdes snuck away from a hotel in the Dominican Republic and are now pursuing opportunities to potentially sign with Major League teams.

There is hope that the thawing of relations between the two countries will result in a regulated and legal path for baseball players in the not-too-distant future, although quite how much freedom of movement (and freedom on the player market) that will result in is yet to be determined. Hopefully it will be a step in the right direction at least.

The Rays’ visit should be a momentous occasion and the game is live on BT Sport/ESPN from 17.30 on Tuesday.

With Baseball Tonight episodes returning to BT Sport channels on a regular basis this week, and Nat Coombs’ new All American Sports Show on talkSPORT2 beginning on Tuesday at 18.00, excitement for the season ahead is really starting to build.

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