Posted on Saturday, 06.14.14
Cuba ballplayers chase dreams, big bucks, overseas
BY ANNE-MARIE GARCIA
HAVANA — Yulieski Gourriel’s cellphone rang again and again as he
strode, family in tow, through Havana’s international airport. Friends
calling to wish him well, he said.
Travelers and airport workers approached to ask for autographs and have
their picture taken with one of Cuba’s biggest baseball stars as he
readied for a transoceanic flight to join his new team: the DeNA
BayStars of Yokohama, Japan.
“Good luck Yuli!” some fans cried.
Weeks after the springtime close of the domestic league, the first Cuban
ballplayers are competing abroad under last year’s historic reversal of
a Marxist-inspired professional sports ban in place since 1961.
It’s a tectonic shift for players like Gourriel, who signed a reported
$980,000 contract with Yokohama for the next half-year. In Japan, he
joined fellow Cuban Frederich Cepeda, who is reportedly hauling in $1.5
million with the Yomiuri Giants.
“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. I want to know
what Yulieski’s ceiling is as a player,” Gourriel said. “For me it’s a
dream come true to play professional baseball in Japan, the second-best
(league) in the world after the United States.”
For Cuban ballplayers, chasing the pro dream has long meant abandoning
the national team at an overseas tournament and requesting asylum, or
attempting a risky high-seas escape. Getting caught could mean a long
suspension or even a ban from the sport.
Many tried regardless, lured by the chance to prove themselves at the
sport’s highest level and the promise of a fat-cat contract in the
United States. Consider Yasiel Puig, who inked a seven-year, $42 million
deal and debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013, or Jose Abreu,
who signed for $68 million with the Chicago White Sox.
Gourriel’s and Cepeda’s salaries fall far short of those, and it’s still
unknown how much the taxman back home intends to take. But the contracts
almost certainly vault them into Cuba’s figurative 1 percent after years
of making just a few dozen dollars a month plus bonuses.
“Yulieski and the other Cubans have representatives who are going to
take care of the money side,” said his father, Lourdes Gourriel. The
windfall will be “a great help for the player and all his family.”
The new rules let islanders play overseas as long as they fulfill their
commitment to the domestic league and international competitions, so
both Gourriel and Cepeda are scheduled to be back for Cuba’s winter
league in November.
Some Cuban baseball players have been allowed to compete abroad before,
such as Omar Linares, who played in Japan in 2000. But that usually
happened only at the close of a long career; Gourriel and Cepeda are
blazing a trail as the first players active on Cuban rosters to go
abroad for temporary stints, with the blessing of sports authorities in
the Communist-run nation.
Arriving in Japan, Gourriel spent just a few days with a minor league
team before being called up to the BayStars. In his first three games he
hit .417 with a home run two RBIs. Cepeda has had a tougher time,
batting just .182 through 21 games with the Giants.
Another Cuban star, Alfredo Despaigne, had a splash debut in Mexico this
spring with the Campeche Pirates. He hit .346 with five HRs over 20
games before league authorities sent him packing after ruling he was
registered with a fake Dominican passport under circumstances that
The Cubans allowed to play abroad are a staple on state TV newscasts
back home and government-run websites that post videos of their home
runs. In stark contrast, the names of defecting players all but vanish
from official media.
Knowing they’re in the spotlight, “we have a great responsibility,”
Gourriel said. “The first objective is to play baseball, and do it well
to open doors for the rest of the Cuban players.”
Indeed, other players are eager to follow in their footsteps and return
to the island they call home.
“A million in Cuba means a lot more than elsewhere,” said Alexander
Malleta, a slugger for the Havana team Industriales. “Because here you
have everything — your family, your friends, your life.”
“This is a reward for all those who have been faithful to the nation,
those who have been struggling here practically without anything,”
Malleta added. He has yet to land a foreign contract but is already more
content thanks to a recent pay hike for local ballplayers. “I’m going to
feel more calm and stable and concentrate on doing my job because I know
that my children — I have two — will not want for anything.”
Rumors abound that Japanese clubs want to sign more Cubans, and the
shortlist of who could be next includes stars like 18-year-old
rookie-of-the-year pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez, or hard-hitting
outfielders Yadiel Hernandez and Yasmani Tomas.
There’s still no mechanism for Cubans to reach Major League Baseball
without abandoning their homeland. Cuba’s requirement that they pay
taxes at home apparently conflicts with U.S. embargo rules barring most
financial transactions with Havana. And MLB officials say Cubans must
still establish permanent residency outside of the island to be eligible.
Lourdes Gourriel said he hopes that someday it will be as simple and
commonplace for Cubans to play in the United States as it is for
Dominicans, Venezuelans and people of other nationalities.
“The best baseball in the world is in the Major Leagues. All baseball
players dream of testing themselves there,” said the elder Gourriel, a
retired outfielder who won Olympic gold with Cuba in 1992. “Yulieski
would like to. I would have liked to in my time.”
Anne-Marie Garcia on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AnneMarie279
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