The Two-Way

Two Of Cuban Baseball's Brightest Stars Apparently Defect


Cuban baseball star Yulieski Gourriel at Latin American Stadium in Havana in the spring of 2015.
Eyder Peralta, NPR
Cuban baseball star Yulieski Gourriel at Latin American Stadium in Havana in the spring of 2015.

In a further sign that Cuban baseball is in shambles, Cuban state media reports that two of the island's brightest stars left their team in Santo Domingo after competing in the Caribbean Series.

Lourdes Gourriel Jr., 22, and his older brother Yulieski, 31, left the team hotel in the early morning on Monday.

"The rest of team decried the defection," the official Juventud Rebelde newspaper reported. "They decried the action of both players as a rejection of the loyalty Cuban baseball has to the revolution."

Last spring, we visited Cuba and spoke to Yulieski Gourriel. He said he wanted to play in the big leagues but would only do so with the permission of Cuban authorities.

At the time, there was great hope on the island that an agreement with Major League Baseball could stop the defections that have sucked much of the great talent out of the island.

Many in Cuba hoped that thawing relations with the United States would mean that Gourriel could play in the Major Leagues and then play for the Cuban national league during the off season.

Peter Bjarkman, an author who keeps close track of Cuban baseball, said this is another symptom of a system in crisis.

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"The defection of the Gourriels does send one strong signal and that is that no working accord with MLB is anywhere in sight," Bjarkman said.

Bjarkman said when it comes a deal with Major League Baseball, the Cubans are in a no-win situation.

"The Cubans realize that an accord allowing their players to move MLB would effectively kill their league since all the top talent would leave," Bjarkman said. "But by standing pat it is happening anyway, so they are damned if they do and damned if they don't."

The New York Times adds:

"Ismael Sene, a baseball historian who hosts a weekly TV program in Havana, said: 'Yulieski is one of the most beloved we have here, from the people to the government. It's a sad day because it means our baseball is falling apart.'

"The Gourriels' apparent defections come as Major League Baseball and Cuba's baseball federation seek a working relationship that would allow Cuban players to leave their country legally to play in the major leagues. In a show of progress, the Cuban government allowed several major leaguers who were defectors — including Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox and Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers — to take part in the recent goodwill tour.

"And if an accord had been reached, Yulieski Gourriel was thought to be among the first Cuban players who might take advantage and join the major leagues. But he apparently decided he could not wait, perhaps because he is already over 30."

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