At Caribbean Series, Gourriel captures the imagination
Cuba star making scouts wonder what could be if infielder makes it to Majors
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The first few rows behind home plate here at Hiram Bithorn Stadium are reserved for Major League scouts.
The seats are faded lime green and hard plastic, usually full around noon -- an hour before the first game of the Caribbean Series -- and empty an hour later when the unforgiving tropical rays force most of its inhabitants to search for shade in the peach-colored seats in the second level.
There are handshakes and chatter within the group of scouts. There's texting and smiling. That is, until Cuban infielder Yulieski Gourriel steps into the batter's box or fields a ground ball.
Then lips purse and heads nod.
For all of the pageantry -- and some controversy -- that has followed Cuba's Pinar del Rio team in Puerto Rico this week, one thing remains at the forefront: Gourriel is not only Cuba's top player, he's probably the most talented player in the tournament. The infielder will return to Japan for his second season abroad soon and scouts can't help but wonder if and when he'll make it to the United States.
"I want to play, but I want to do it legally, with permission," Gourriel said, repeating what he said last season in Venezuela when Cuba returned to the Caribbean Series for the first time since 1960. "Everyone wants to play in the highest level in the world. For baseball players, that's in MLB."
Gourriel will be 31 in June, but he remains the type player scouts and front-office executives covet. There's plenty of "Yuli" talk heard in the green seats, the peach seats, the concourse, the hotel lobbies and San Juan restaurants after games. There's probably a scout on the phone now talking about Gourriel's performance in Cuba's 6-2 loss to Venezuela on Thursday.
Some scouts consider him a plus-defender with plus-makeup and instincts. He's also surprised a few scouts with his speed on the bases. There's belief that he could hit .300 in the Major Leagues with 40 doubles tomorrow.
Gourriel is hitting .267 with one RBI and no extra-base hits in four Caribbean Series games for Pinar del Rio (1-3).
There was once the belief that Gourriel would never leave Cuba because of his family's strong ties to the island. Gourriel's father, Lourdes, is a baseball icon in Cuba, and Gourriel plays with older brother Yunieski and younger sibling Lourdes Jr. for the Industriales. In a show of solidarity, the Gourriel brothers transferred from their Sancti Spiritus team to the Havana club because of their father's ailing health.
But Yulieski's willingness to play in Japan last year -- through a special program created by the Cuban government that allows its athletes to play in foreign leagues -- and his return to Japan this year has some wondering if he's thinking about another jump, this time to the Major Leagues.
After all, there's not much left for Gourriel to do in baseball in Cuba. He was a member of the 2004 Olympic team and Cuban championship teams at the Pan American Games, Central American Games, World Baseball Championships and International Cup. He made his pro debut in 2001 as a 17-year-old.
Gourriel is accomplished. He's also been criticized for looking bored and disinterested against lesser competition at times.
It's still a complicated process if Gourriel becomes available to a Major League team. All Cuban players must establish residency outside Cuba and the United States and petition Major League Baseball for free agency. Earlier this week, Major League Baseball met with the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for a clarification regarding new guidelines for a general license for an unblocked Cuban national. MLB will begin requiring a sworn statement that says a Cuban player is in compliance with Section 515.05 of Cuban Assets Control Regulations in order to sign with a Major League team.
Two players from the Cuban team defected during the Caribbean Series on Tuesday night. There is no indication Gourriel will not fulfill his obligation in Japan or abandon his country. This much is certain: His first year with Yokohama DeNA BayStars was an eye-opening experience. In essence, he traded one regimented form of baseball for another.
"At the beginning, it was a lot of work. It's really different in how you live and it's a very different culture," Gourriel said. "It hit me hard in the beginning. I lived by myself. I'm used to relaxing around my family."
"I adapted little by little, also in baseball," he continued." It's a baseball that's different than we play in the Caribbean, but the more time I spent there, the more I adapted."
The fact that Cuba's Serie Nacional, the island's top league, starts in November and ends in April only serves to complicate matters. The baseball schedule in Japan, similar to the Major League schedule, starts in April and ends in October.
There's no time for Gourriel to rest.
There are reports Japanese owners are becoming increasingly concerned with the number of games their Cuban investments play when they return to the island. Also, Spring Training in Japan starts this month.
Lourdes Jr. is expected to join Yulieski with the BayStars, while Caribbean Series teammates Frederich Cepeda and Alfredo Despaigne are also going back to Japan. In all, nine players from Cuba are expected to play in Japan this year.
"It's really difficult. The whole world knows that Japan is tough league with a lot of training involved," Yulieski said. "We had to adapt to that. We had to leave one league without much of a rest, enter another league in Cuba. You finish in Cuba and you go back there. It's not impossible, but it's difficult."
For those hopeful eyes in the green and peach seats, it's at least a start.