Obama to attend Major League Baseball game in Cuba

New York (AFP) - US President Barack Obama will attend a baseball game during a landmark visit to Cuba later this month, a symbolic show of friendship between the two baseball-mad nations.

The Tampa Bay Rays will face the Cuban national team in an exhibition game on March 22 at Estadio Latinoamericano in the capital Havana -- the first time a Major League team has played on the communist-ruled island since 1999.

Top Obama aide Ben Rhodes confirmed Obama would attend the game during his March 21-22 visit, which will be the first by a US president in almost a century.

The last American leader to visit Cuba while in office was Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

Obama, who will visit the island with his wife Michelle, has championed engagement with Cuba. Diplomatic relations between the Cold War foes were restored in July last year.

The last major league team to visit Cuba was the Baltimore Orioles, who played an exhibition against the Cuban national team on March 28, 1999.

"During a time of historic change, we appreciate the constructive role afforded by our shared passion for the game, and we look forward to experiencing Cuba's storied baseball tradition and the passion of its many loyal fans," Major League Commissioner Robert Manfred said in a statement.

Baseball is a shared passion between the United States and Cuba, but also a source of acrimony in their decades-long estrangement.

Ongoing trade restrictions mean Cuban players cannot play in the United States without defecting, and there is no mechanism for their Cuban teams to be compensated by any American team that might eventually hire them.

Cuba has won three Olympic baseball titles and 25 Baseball World Cup crowns, but its national baseball commissioner Heriberto Suarez has said the game is being "lacerated" by defections -- with more than 100 players fleeing the country last year hoping to play for foreign clubs.

Dozens of Cubans now play baseball in the United States.

Earlier this month, brothers Yulieski and Lourdes Gurriel -- sons of a Cuban baseball great also named Lourdes Gurriel -- deserted from the Cuban national team in Santo Domingo.