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Yulieski Gurriel's MLB Debut Was the End of an Era for Cuban Baseball

For many years, the Cuban government hailed baseball player Yulieski Gurriel as a symbol of the success of the revolution. On Sunday, Gurriel, only months after defecting from Cuba, made his MLB debut.

Jorge Arangure Jr.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

There is a certain realization you have as a journalist, and particularly as a sports journalist, in the later part of your career: You are going to run into a lot of bullshit, a lot of clichés, a lot of half-thought answers to what you believed were large, important questions.

Admittedly, sometimes it's our own fault because we ask bad questions. But other times there is no real other way to ask someone what something feels like other than to simply ask, "Well, what does it feel like?"

On Sunday, 32-year-old Cuban infielder Yulieski Gurriel made his major league debut for the Houston Astros. He singled in his first at-bat against Baltimore Orioles pitcher Yovani Gallardo, a liner to center field. After the game, he had a difficult time putting into words what the day had meant.

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"A long time that I've waited for this moment," he told reporters. "Just feel very emotional (and) very happy."

What could he possibly say? There had been delays—short-term ones, as the game started late because of rain, and long-term ones, as in he had waited his entire career for the moment to arrive. That base hit marked the end of an era for Cuban baseball.

Gurriel, a standout on the national team and star in the Cuban Serie Nacional for nearly 16 seasons, had always been the loyal Cuban. He symbolized everything that Cuban baseball had stood for since the revolution. He became the Cuban national team's spokesman at the not-yet-ripe age of 21. For many years, he was proof that Cuba could still produce the best players in the world. But as the national team struggled in major tournaments and the quality of play in the Serie Nacional eroded, all of those beliefs began to erode, as well. Gurriel's defection in February and his subsequent five-year $47.5 million contract with Houston was simply the last push. So, describing what it meant and what he felt would have nearly been impossible. The moment was bigger than him.

Gurriel singled in his first MLB at bat. Photo by Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

I first encountered Gurriel on March 7, 2006, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was then a baseball writer at the Washington Post. Gurriel (his last name then spelled Gourriel) was just 21 years old, the crown jewel of the Cuban baseball system, who was about to be unleashed to grander baseball world at the first World Baseball Classic. He represented everything about modern-day Cuba, or at least the version of itself that Cuba liked to present to the world. First, Gurriel had come from a celebrated baseball family: his father, Lourdes, was a star player in the Serie Nacional. Second, Gurriel was exceptional, the kind of player who seemed like he would symbolize a social and political system that was thriving. And finally, he always spoke the company line, and seemed fairly genuine about it.

Whatever people think of the World Baseball Classic, and in the U.S. it's certainly an afterthought, the Cuban team's appearance for that first tournament was monumental. My assignment in 2006 for the Post was to document the team's arrival.

On that Tuesday a decade ago, while several reporters, including myself, waited for the Cubans in the lobby of the El San Juan Hotel, the team was clandestinely ushered through a service entrance. Word gradually got around that the team had arrived, and we rushed toward the back of the hotel, near the garden area, to catch a glimpse. Their presence was considered sensational, newsworthy. Even reporters like myself were fascinated.

I wrote then:

More than 100 police officers and security guards, some in plain clothes, were stationed in every corner of the hotel and they all stirred when word came that the Cuban team had arrived. One hotel employee, who had been working when several major league teams had visited San Juan to play against the Montreal Expos, remarked, "I've never seen this type of security before."

The team was brought in through a service entrance, where players stepped out of green and white buses wearing blue blazers and ties with gray slacks. They checked into a bungalow in an isolated area of the hotel and only were seen again when they had lunch an hour or so after their arrival. A brigade of 15 to 20 officers followed them. Hallinan was part of the group.

"Of course this is a special circumstance," said Col. Carlos Haddock Roman of the Puerto Rican police. "We have guaranteed them their safety."

The team then went to Hiram Bithorn Stadium for a workout. We were allowed access to three players, one of them being Gurriel. We were told not to ask questions about politics or defections. Doing so would end the press conference.

It ended up being one of the most useless press conferences I have ever covered. It was hardly a press conference at all. Gurriel was asked how he felt to participate in this tournament.

"We've seen the quality of these other players," Gurriel said at that press conference. "I think they play with other objectives in mind than we do. One thing that separates us from them is the unity we have on our team."

That was the only time I quoted him in my story.

At that point, I had only read a few things about Gurriel. Back then, accounts about the Cuban national team were still scarce. But he intrigued me. He was a prospect, a star, a mystery, all in one.

"Some people say I'm the best in Cuba," Gourriel told the New York Times in 2006, just prior to that first World Baseball Classic. "How do you know?"

And that would turn out to be the most prophetic Gurriel line of all. Because for the remainder of his career in Cuba, and then later in Japan after the government allowed him to play overseas, this question would eat away at him. How would he know how good he really was?

The last time I encountered Gurriel was in January 2015. I was a producer for a television shoot in Havana for VICE World of Sports, where we were profiling how baseball could be a conduit for change in relations between Cuba and the United States.

As part of that shoot, the Cuban baseball federation offered our crew an exclusive interview with Yulieski and his then 19-year-old brother Lourdes Jr. at their family's house. Even then, Gurriel was still being offered up as a successful symbol of the revolution.

Our arrival in Cuba came less than a month after President Barack Obama's mandate in December 2014 for improved relations between the two countries. Nobody knew what this meant. In some ways, we still don't know. But there was excitement on the island. Change was coming, for better or for worse.

These possible changes seemed to have a direct effect on Cuba's baseball players. Since 1991, players have been defecting from the island in order to play in the major leagues. As drug cartels in Mexico, trainers in the Dominican Republic, and American agents got involved in the process (motivated, of course, by money), the Cuban baseball player trade got increasingly treacherous.

But Obama's announcement perhaps meant that Cuban baseball players no longer had to risk their lives or make shady financial deals in order to play major league baseball. This news possibly meant players loyal to the Cuban government, such as Gurriel, might find a legal way off the island and on to a big-league roster.

Gurriel was excited but cautious when we talked that day at his parent's house. It was true, he said, that the opportunity might soon arrive. But it was also true that his time was running out. He was 31 then and he realized his baseball career was in decline. He no longer was that 21-year-old prospect who every team had wanted to sign. Now Lourdes Jr. was that heralded prospect. Throughout his career, Gurriel told us, he had been offered many opportunities to defect and sign with teams. But even those offers were slowly fading away. This was not the twilight of his career, but it was close. And so he hoped that any new policies would be implemented soon.

And then I asked him the kind of question that often elicits an empty answer from athletes. I asked him how would it feel if he never played in the majors.

The question nearly bowled him over. I don't think he expected to have such a natural reaction to it. But he stopped, held his breath, and then said that it would hurt. Very much. It would make his career incomplete. It would eat away at him forever. Because he would never know how good he was. And that's always been the defining question for Gurriel.

I then asked him if his brother playing in the majors would compensate for him not playing in the majors. Gurriel was diplomatic, but also truthful. He said would feel proud for his brother, but a part of him would continue to be empty.

After this exchange, I could not help but think of that first encounter I had with Gurriel, on that March day in 2006, at that "press conference," when his answers seemed so rehearsed and unemotional. But these answers were so different. He had gotten to the point where phony platitudes didn't mean a thing anymore. He may have believed, and may continue to believe, in the ideals of the revolution, but he also believed in Yulieski Gurriel the baseball player. And this was his plea to the outside world that he wanted to play major league baseball.

Yet even remembering that day, knowing how much he said he wanted to play in the majors, I was still shocked when I heard about his defection, only a year after our interview. Gurriel's departure from Cuba was jarring, and most emblematic of a grander problem for the country, and the sport's place in it. Because if Yulieski Gurriel can leave, so could anybody else.

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