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Caribbean Series the start of turning point for Cuba?

Reestablishment of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations could pave way for influx of talent

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The glistening black Transporte Sonnell charter bus rolled to a stop late Saturday afternoon in the hotel parking lot in the Condado neighborhood of San Juan.

The buffed chrome rims shined and the windows of the bus were so darkly tinted that only the reflection of a few fans standing on the sidewalk waving the distinct blue, red, and white Cuban flags could be seen.

The bus doors flipped open, and one by one, players from the Cuban team -- a team often shrouded in mystery -- stepped into the island breeze. Their black Adidas wind pants and red windbreakers with "Cuba" written across the back became visible.

It was two days before the start of the annual Caribbean Series tournament, which features the Winter League champions from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela at the historic Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

All eyes are on the Cuban team.

Baseball, politics and Cuba have been intertwined for more than half of a century, but there is a renewed focus during this series at this U.S. Commonwealth in the wake of President Barack Obama's promise to improve U.S. and Cuban relations.

On Monday, Mexico's Culiacan Tomateros defeated Cuba's Pinar del Rio, 2-1, to kick off the 2015 version of the tournament in front of an audience that included dozens of scouts and front-office executives from Major League Baseball and Japan.

It's only one game, but it felt like much more.

"In a short series like this one, you can say every team is strong," Cuban manager Alfonso Urquiola said. "We have to take each game by game. There are no weak teams and there are no strong teams. We are all the same."

In some ways, Urquiola is right. The Cuban team travels to and from the stadium in charter buses and is staying at one of the top hotels in the city -- just like every other team. The Cubans sign autographs and pose for photos with fans like everyone else. The players are generally accessible for media interviews before and after games, although it's almost always under the watchful eye of a press officer or member of the Cuban delegation standing nearby.

And that's where the Cuban team is completely different from every other team in the tournament. On Sunday morning, the shiny black charter bus drove 25 minutes to the city of Carolina for a private workout at Roberto Clemente Stadium. Two Puerto Rican police officers on motorcycles followed them to the facility -- a security measure often reserved for powerful diplomats. A plain clothes law-enforcement officer stood guard at the only entrance into the stadium, peering out from behind a steel gate to make sure no unauthorized person made it in.

Last month, President Obama announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, a shift that could affect Cuban players currently in the Majors and pave the way for Cuban players seeking to play in the U.S. to have an easier passage.

It's still a complicated process. Any Cuban defector who wants to do business with an American company must first establish residency outside Cuba and the United States, a process that can take several months, depending on the country. Cuban players must also petition for free agency from Major League Baseball. The U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is now operating under a new set of guidelines for unblocking a player to sign with a team. MLB and OFAC are expected to meet this week.

"It's all good news," said Cuban All-Star infielder Yulieski Gourriel. "The main thing is relations are improving. For baseball, it's great news. For us, we have to take advantage of it for the good of Cuban baseball, that's the main thing."

If any player could benefit from improved relations between the United States and Cuba in the near future, it's Gourriel. The son of Lourdes Gourriel Sr., a baseball hero in Cuba, and middle brother in one of the most famous baseball families in Cuba, Yulieski is an Olympian, a three-time World Baseball Classic participant and a member of multiple Cuban championship teams.

Gourriel played in Japan last year as part of a special program Cuba created to allow its players to play in foreign baseball leagues, and it looks like he is headed back to Japan this year. He's back in the Caribbean Series again, the second time Cuba has been in the tournament since Fidel Castro took over the country and stopped the country's participation in 1960.

But Yulieski, the player once compared to a young Derek Jeter at the World Baseball Classic in 2006, will be 31 in June. The window to his prime baseball years in the United States could be closing. That's not the case for his little brother and Havana Industriales teammate Lourdes Jr., a 21-year-old infielder who has burst onto the scene in Cuba's top league, Serie Nacional.

Lourdes Jr., who is expected to join Yulieski with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in Japan this year, is eager to play professionally outside of his country.

"Of course, that's the goal of all players to play baseball on the highest level," he said. "I'd like to play in a better league to keep improving my game."

The oldest brother, Yunieski Gourriel, plays center field for Havana and is considered the lesser player of the three. He will also be 33 in a few weeks.

"[Lourdes] is young, and he has so much potential," Yulieski said. "He's doing great like I knew he would. Me, my older brother and my father, we've watched him grow into a good player."

Some believe Lourdes Gourriel Jr. could be the best baseball player in the family. He's athletic, he can play multiple positions and he will only get better with big league instruction if he ever manages to make it to the United States.

Lourdes is destined to be a star in the Major Leagues, some say. The younger Gourriel, that's the one who will be a household name in the United States one day.

The same things were said about Yulieski Gourriel almost 10 years ago.

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB.