Even though it won't be this year, the Orioles have long had interest in returning to Cuba to play an exhibition game there. And if all goes well with the Tampa Bay Rays' exhibition game in Cuba next month, it could open the door for the Orioles to follow.

Hurdles remain for the Rays to visit Cuba for a March 22 exhibition against the Cuban national team, a trip that would mark the first time a major league club has played in Cuba since the Orioles' exhibition there in 1999. Since the U.S. restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in late 2014, the Orioles have been campaigning for a return trip to the country, but Major League Baseball randomly selected the Rays to participate in the game.

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Players union chief Tony Clark, who visited Orioles camp Saturday, said that the joint goodwill tour by Major League Baseball and the union served as groundwork for this year's game and future exhibitions in Cuba.

"Putting aside for the moment the political current, and that's a big piece, but let's put that aside for a moment," Clark said. "I think based on the history that exists there, the sensitivities that exist there that each event is a singular event, but I think they are undoubtedly all connected. I think even the possibility of a spring training game is the result of the goodwill tour in December, and it's going well. The focal point being everyone's love and passion and commitment to baseball, and having Cuban players come back and having non-Cuban players be there and putting on clinics. Just a goodwill tour where there was no game and was really designed to see if we could create some open dialogue did just that where, to where although challenging, although there are indeed some hurdles left to overcome, this is another opportunity to continue to move forward.

"I'm not naïve enough to suggest there aren't some deep-rooted concerns with any number of people that are a part of this equation. The focal point being baseball provides a bridge to move the line forward. If this game does happen, if this game goes well, if everybody enjoys themselves, which if it happens -- I would anticipate that happening -- we remain hopeful that it continues to grow and create momentum toward further opportunities."

Among the largest obstacles for the game in Clark's eyes is ensuring safe playing conditions at Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano, the same facility where the Orioles' exhibition took place in '99.

"There are a lot of intricacies that are a part of this type of event because of the two countries that are involved," Clark said. "The location, the facilities, the management, the time, the travel -- all of that is always a part of the conversation and is always one that we're concerned about. As much as we get excited about the game growing internationally, putting players on a field that's not safe is not something we're interested in nor do I think the club is interested in it, either. So I think we've been able to work through a lot of those concerns in a lot of other areas realizing that a lot of these areas have some challenges with respect to facilities and fields.

"As much as you want them to be reflective, or you hope they're reflective of the major league facilities that are here. Some are, and some need some work, but again the truth is, at least as it pertains to Cuba, everyone is doing everything they can to give this a chance to work, including ensuring that the fields and the amenities are up to par."

eencina@baltsun.com
twitter.com/EddieInTheYard

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