KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
Billy H.C. Kwok/for The Globe and Mail
Major League Baseball could soon see a wave of legally recruited Cuban nationals. If it happens, there's a good chance one of the Gurriel brothers will be among the first.
Havana's Parque Central is where Cubans gather to argue about baseball. Under towering palm trees that line streets jammed with 1950s American cars, small crowds of fanatics come to the park each afternoon to air their views on the island's passion.
It's known as esquina caliente, the hot corner. Before the government began allowing Major League Baseball to be shown on television, Cubans came here to find out what was going on across the water. Somebody was always in the know – thanks to a relative in Miami, a black-market satellite dish, or distant radio signals from across the Straits of Florida.
These days, amid the renewal of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, it's much easier to follow the pro game. And so today's argument is over something that many hot-corner regulars never thought they'd be debating in their lifetimes: Which Cuban will be the first allowed to play MLB, without having to defect?
Despite having its baseball ranks depleted by a seemingly endless run of high-profile departures in recent years, Cuba remains rich in talent. The crowd tosses around several names. Despaigne! Mesa! But through the chatter, one name in particular comes up over and over: Gurriel.
"Yes," says a gray-haired man, "Gurriel." A younger man in an Atlanta Braves cap nods in agreement, putting the debate to rest: "Gurriel."
In Cuba, the Gurriels are the first family of baseball.
The father, Lourdes Gurriel Sr., is a former superstar for Cuba who carved his place in the country's hearts by hitting a crucial home run against the U.S. in 1988. Now he has three sons on the national team, and two of them are among the best players in the world outside MLB. When the hot-corner faithful say "Gurriel," they are referring to either 31-year-old Yulieski, a slugging third-baseman and established star, or Lourdes Jr., just 22, a rangy shortstop with a dangerous bat and a huge upside.
A few days after the Parque Central session, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is at the plate for the Havana Industriales, the pride of the Cuban National Series. His team is pummeling the hapless Camaguey Alfareros, whose logo is a red clay pot.
The score is already 8-0, but with Gurriel at the plate, things are about to get worse. With the bases loaded in the seventh inning, he demolishes the first pitch over the cement wall in centre field. The ball soars past a marker that reads 380 feet and disappears into a stairwell, followed by a dozen fans chasing it.
But before Gurriel can get to third base, things get weird. The opposing team walks off the field and the outfield lights go out. By the time he crosses home plate, the scoreboard has been shut down too. They don't even leave up the final score: 12-0.
It is the most decisive walk-off home run imaginable. Thanks to a 10-run mercy rule in Cuban baseball, Gurriel's grand slam has literally turned out the lights in Havana.
A few minutes later, standing in the bowels of the pitch-black stadium, Gurriel is grinning at his accomplishment.
"Very exciting, no?"
Gurriel, who Cubans refer to as Tito, is 6-foot-4 and 183 pounds and debuted in Cuba's highest league at age 16. Baseball America, an authority on the Cuban National Series, calls Tito "one of the league's premier talents… a smart hitter with a chance to get on base at a high clip and drive the ball for power."
Loosely translated, he is what major league scouts dream about when they imagine the door being opened for Cubans to play in America.
And the evidence that day is approaching has been mounting steadily. Last December, U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled plans to normalize relations with Cuba, after more than a half-century of political strife. That led to the reopening of embassies on each other's soil in August.
It's not a complete reversal of history: Lifting the 54-year-old U.S. embargo still requires congressional approval. But there is a shift under way that could make an agreement between MLB and Cuba a reality in the not-too-distant future.
In October, Fidel Castro's son Antonio travelled to New York to meet with MLB lawyers. That same month, league officials went to Havana for more meetings. By November, commissioner Rob Manfred was speaking optimistically about holding MLB exhibition games in Cuba next spring. And this week, a group of major-league players, including three defectors, travelled to Havana on a goodwill tour.
Most of those details are destined for history textbooks that are not yet written. What MLB teams really care about is gaining access to Cuba's talent pool. And if that were to happen, Gurriel would be a leading candidate to break one of baseball's final frontiers – becoming the first Cuban allowed to play in MLB in more than half a century.
But even with his youth and hitting prowess, there is a good chance Tito won't be the first. In fact, he might not even be the first Gurriel to go. That honour likely belongs to his brother Yulieski, whom many on the island consider to be Cuba's best player.
In 22 games for the Industriales this season, Yulieski is batting .550, a figure that seems more like a typo than an actual statistic. His odds of getting on base are better than flipping a coin.
The buzz surrounding Yulieski is unmistakable. Everyone wants to see him play. But on this night, while his younger brother celebrates a grand slam, the Industriales' star third-baseman is nowhere to be found.
Instead, he's at home with a new baby – and a very rich future to contemplate.
Man of mystery
To find one of major-league baseball's most coveted outsiders, you must drive 20 minutes east from the Industriales' stadium to Havana's embassy district.
The popular image of Havana is often a ramshackle mix of crumbling Spanish architecture, cobblestone streets and visible poverty. By comparison, this part of town is the city's Bel Air.
The Gurriel family lives in a house that once belonged to a diplomat. The place is not hard to spot: Etched into a stone walkway leading to the front door are the words "Gurriel Castillo" in large letters that curve around the image of a baseball.
Castle Gurriel, which belongs to Lourdes Sr., is a whirlwind of activity. Yulieski, his wife and their new baby live here with Tito and the parents. There is a gym out back. The family hopes to install a batting cage alongside the house, for extra practice.
Yulieski has missed the past few Industriales games, but it's nothing serious, he says – just taking some time off to help with the baby and to rest. A baseball player missing a few games here and there isn't usually worth noting, but the amount of rest he has been getting over the past year is the source of much intrigue and speculation.
“Why a Cuban player would pass on $3-million was, to say the least, perplexing.Ben Badler, Baseball America’s expert on Cuban players
Two years ago, Cuba decided to start contracting out some of its best players to leagues around the world, on the condition that they return to the island at the end of their season abroad. The deals were a way for Cuba to bring in money for its creaking baseball programs, and to begin laying the groundwork for negotiations with MLB, by establishing precedents around the world.
The third and oldest brother, 33-year-old Yuniesky (not to be confused with Yulieski), was sent to play for the Quebec Capitales in the independent Can-Am league, which plays in eastern Canada and the U.S. His debut in 2014 marked the first time a Cuban player played professionally in those two countries in decades without having to defect.
While the Quebec deal was a symbolic breakthrough – an act of baseball diplomacy after years of Cold War isolation – the Cubans reserved their very best players for Japan, which was willing to pay millions.
Middle-son Yulieski signed with the Yokohama BayStars for an estimated $1-million a season over three years, while his teammate on the national team, slugger Alfredo Despaigne, Cuba's No. 2-ranked player, joined the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Yulieski's first year in Japan was a moderate success. He batted .304 in 62 games and was immortalized with his first bobblehead, which now sits on a mantle in the family's home. But when it came time to return this spring, things went sour. He was expected to report to the BayStars in late March, roughly two weeks after the Industriales' season ended. When Gurriel failed to show, the Japanese team swiftly cancelled his contract.
Why Yulieski didn't report is uncertain. The family passes it off as a miscommunication: He wanted to rest an ailing hamstring, the BayStars didn't understand, and things got irrevocably messy.
To others, the story didn't add up. Ben Badler, Baseball America's expert on Cuban players, noted how odd it was for a player to put a lucrative deal in jeopardy. "Why a Cuban player would pass on $3-million was, to say the least, perplexing," Badler wrote in a report this summer. "Something is up with the Gurriel brothers."
Onlookers had detected something odd in Yulieski's game in recent years. "There has been widespread criticism from scouts about Yulieski's effort level," Badler said. "A lot of scouts think he's just bored, with no incentive to play harder."
Not long after the Japan deal imploded, the plot thickened further when Yulieski pulled himself from the roster of players representing Cuba at the Pan Am Games in Toronto this summer.
There were a lot of things going on in his life that served as reasons for not going back to Japan – the injury, the new baby on the way – and they all seemed plausible. But there was another theory: From the outside it looked like Yulieski Gurriel was saving himself for something.
When he returned to play for the Industriales in September, Yulieski was reinvigorated, picking apart pitchers and getting on base every other time he went to the plate. His .550 batting average through late October left the impression he was trying to send a message.
Billy H.C. Kwok/for The Globe and Mail
'It would be historic'
Cuba's best baseball player sits on a sofa at home, talking about his dreams to play MLB. He is wearing workout clothes, but it is unclear whether he's heading to the gym or has just returned. In the next room, his wife is tending to the new baby.
Around him there are signs of the money he made in Japan – a new barbecue on the patio, a lawnmower in the backyard, and a Kia SUV for his dad. But his mind is fixated on baseball in America.
Gurriel says he didn't axe the BayStars contract specifically to chase MLB dreams. "It wasn't that," he says. "But from there, after that season, is when the talks [about playing MLB] started to get more serious."
At the very least, not being under contract in Japan certainly helps his mobility should the major leagues suddenly become an option. He acknowledges that he's been thinking a lot about it these days.
"Yeah," Gurriel says. "Given how the changes are happening now – I think that the time has come. I think it's advancing quicker than I had thought. If it continues to go this way I think that [soon] there could be Cubans playing."
Which may explain his current tear. "I'm trying to have good numbers," he says. "This season, there's a little more interest."
Does he want to be the first?
"It would be historic," he says. "I have waited all my life."
There is much speculation, from Havana's Parque Central to pro baseball circles, that the Cuban Baseball Federation has already compiled a short list of candidates who would go first should a deal be struck.
It's no secret that the Gurriels are well regarded in government circles. When Cuba chose a player as a test case in Quebec in 2014, they sent a Gurriel. It's reasonable to think Yulieski could be next.
Also factoring into that equation is how ready some of those players are for the MLB game. Of the ones who have defected, some walked right into the big leagues and made an impact. Others struggled in the minors.
"I think there are players right now that could go," Yulieski says, counting himself on that list.
As a high-profile player on the Cuban national team, he had opportunities to play MLB before, but didn't want to defect. "Ever since I made the national team for the first time, I was 17 years old, I always received offers," he says. "But I have always had a very close family, and a father that was legendary in baseball. He always instilled in me that I should play in Cuba."
The rumour mill about players leaving Cuba has always been rampant. In 2006, when the national team was playing at a tournament in Colombia, news outlets in Latin America reported erroneously that Yulieski had gone missing from the team and had defected. The Bogota Times reported he signed a deal with the New York Yankees, causing ESPN Deportes to pick up the story.
It wasn't until Gurriel spoke with ESPN from Cuba that the reports of his defection were finally laid to rest. But the thought of playing MLB never left his mind.
He muses about what it will be like: The pitcher he most wants to face is Max Scherzer, the Washington Nationals' ace who Gurriel has watched from afar.
"He's probably a difficult pitcher to face," Gurriel says of the 2013 Cy Young winner.
In recent months, Gurriel has spoken by phone with Cuban players who left to play MLB and now can't return.
"They continue to communicate with us," Gurriel says. "We talk about our desire, that we want to go there. And they talk about their desire to come here."
FRED R. CONRAD/NYT
'They will want the best'
With the reopening of diplomatic relations between the two countries, MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation have also started talking.
"I would characterize them as very early-stage meetings," says Dan Halem, chief legal officer of Major League Baseball, who is involved in the talks.
One of MLB's concerns is how to open the doors for Cubans to play, without causing a rush of talent off the island that would set the country back in terms of developing new players.
"There has to be an agreement with the Cuban government regarding which players would come and how they would come," Halem says. "Certainly we've got no desire to disrupt baseball in Cuba, so there would have to be some orderly system."
The players picked to go first would be of national importance in Cuba. Baseball is a matter of deep pride on the island, closely tied to the self-image of its populace.
The first player – or group of players – would be about more than just baseball. They would be ambassadors for a country that has always felt like it has something to prove against the U.S. – both in baseball and outside of it.
Higinio Velez, a former manager of the national team who is now president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, says choosing which players to send will be delicate.
“For all baseball players, getting to the highest level is the biggest goal. It’s no secret that the MLB is the highest. With the changes being made by the country, it could happen tomorrow.”Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
The Cubans want to avoid a sudden free-for-all that would deplete their league of top talent just to stock the minor leagues of MLB. But they also know the best four or five players, or possibly more, could be in demand almost immediately, if and when the time comes.
"They will want the best," Velez says, sitting in a hotel in central Havana where he and Heriberto Suarez, Cuba's national baseball commissioner, agreed to an interview.
Cuba's top baseball officials say the country is willing to let players go as free agents, but they want to negotiate with MLB about how it happens.
"We have to be very careful there," Suarez says. "Everything is a process."
Asked if Yulieski Gurriel will be the first player, Suarez suggests its possible: "He's our best player."
A key sticking point, though, is a U.S. requirement that forces players to sever ties with the island, which the Cubans resent. They must either defect in the U.S. or venture to a third country and obtain residency. Most players choose the latter, since that route allows them to enter MLB as international free agents, signing highly lucrative contracts, instead of having to go through the draft.
Finding a country that can offer residency papers quickly isn't difficult, particularly when money is exchanged under the table. There were 18 Cubans on MLB opening day rosters last season. Most of them entered through countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
"We want our players to have the same opportunities as all players in the world… with the same rights as any other player," Velez says. "To play in MLB, you have to become a citizen of a third country. You can't play as a Cuban. That's a form of discrimination only for Cubans."
If the U.S. is willing to work with the federation on such matters, Velez suggests a deal with MLB can get done quickly.
"We're not the ones with restrictions," he says. "Movement is possible when our dignity is respected."
Negotiations such as these are a learning process, Suarez says.
"For us this is something new. But not for you guys, because you have been contracting players all your lives," Suarez says. "The difference for us is that there's money involved. We've never sat down at a table where we could contract someone. I'm happy it has changed. We have to talk about money."
However, money is the complicating factor. If any of it flows back to Cuba, the MLB has a problem. If Cuba wants to be paid for its players – either by selling the rights to negotiate with an athlete, as Japanese teams do, or by collecting taxes on their salaries – it would put MLB in violation of the U.S. embargo.
The two sides either need the embargo to be lifted or changed by Congress, something that Obama is pushing for, or to find a workaround that doesn't involve financial compensation going to Cuba.
"I think it will happen," MLB's Halem says. "But it's going to take a while to work this out."
Obama's decision to seek "a new chapter" with Cuba has changed what's possible. "Before the president's announcement, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Halem says. "There would be no path to have this conversation."
The footage is grainy, but the game lives on thanks to YouTube.
It is the bottom of the ninth in Parma, Italy, and the Cubans are down 3-1 in the final of the 1988 World Baseball Cup to a team of American college players, several of them future MLB stars.
Jim Abbott, who would go on to throw a no-hitter for the Yankees five years later, kept the Cuban hitters in check all game. Despite being born without a right hand, Abbott was a wonder with his left. He threw 96-mph fastballs – high. Most of them crossed the plate up around the letters on Cuba's jerseys.
"I was studying him," says Lourdes Gurriel Sr. "It was a hard pitch for me."
Gurriel had faced Abbott a few times in his career. A year earlier, with a frustrated Fidel Castro looking on from the stands, Abbott became the first U.S. pitcher in 25 years to beat the national team at home. Gurriel noticed that whenever the count got to three balls and one strike, Abbott came back with that signature fastball, high and inside.
"The Cubans were big swingers," Abbott recalls. "They liked to get their hands extended [over the plate]. So that inside fastball was an effective pitch."
With a runner on first, Gurriel got the count to three balls and one strike. "But that time I didn't wait for the second strike," Gurriel says. "I said, I know he's coming with his best pitch, the high fastball. So I was ready for it."
Gurriel's home-run trot made Jose Bautista's controversial bat flip during this fall's baseball playoffs look conservative. Overcome with elation, Gurriel bounded around the bases, leaping high in the air as he approached second, pointing his index finger at the sky as he ran. As he rounded third, he was pumping his fist at the dugout.
The two-run shot fuelled the come-from-behind victory and Castro dubbed Gurriel the Hero of Parma.
"It was heartbreaking," Abbott says from his home in California.
To this day, Lourdes Sr. can't walk the streets of Havana without being asked to shake someone's hand.
"I would have also liked to play in the major leagues," he says. But he wasn't willing to risk leaving Cuba and his family behind. "I have been given many important things in life. Thanks to God, I have seen my three kids follow in my footsteps, and they're quality players."
Depending on how fast things progress between the United States and Cuba, he hopes his two youngest sons will be able to play in the big leagues relatively soon. At 31, Yulieski is ready now – and hoping the chance will come before he gets much older – while Tito, with his size and youth, is a prospect any team would covet.
"I'm always dreaming, and asking for this opportunity [for them]," Lourdes Sr. says. "The greatest thing in the world is to be in the major leagues."
He is confident a deal is going to happen, given the change that's come to Cuban-American relations in the past year. Still, he knows there are no guarantees.
"Given the way talks are going, it's not going to take a long time now," he says. "It's going quickly, but with [deliberate] steps. Little by little."
When his eldest son, Yuniesky, was chosen to play in Quebec the past two summers – as part of an experiment the Cuban baseball federation ran to show MLB that it was willing to negotiate – it was widely seen as a favour to Lourdes Sr. Asked if he's pushed for his two younger sons to be the first allowed to leave Cuba for MLB, the father demurs.
"I haven't asked," he says. "But I'm thinking, if there's a line, I'll be first in it."
There are many on the island like Lourdes Sr., who dreamed of playing in the major leagues, but became baseball casualties of Cuba's politics. From an MLB perspective, they are the lost generation.
Later that night, at the Industriales' stadium, an elderly man approaches and introduces himself as Zayas. He has heard there are Canadians in the crowd.
"Canada!" he says wistfully. "I love Montreal."
He is Luis Zayas, 78, a former minor league player for the Havana Sugar Kings and Montreal Royals in 1958 and '59. Both teams were gateways to the big leagues – Havana was the top farm club of the Cincinnati Reds, while the Royals were the Los Angeles Dodgers' affiliate – and Zayas knew he was just one phone call away from making it.
A different call put those aspirations on hold. Soon after Castro's socialist revolution swept Cuba, professional baseball was outlawed on the island. The U.S.-owned Sugar Kings, once thought destined to become MLB's first franchise in Cuba, hastily moved to New Jersey, where they soon folded.
Meanwhile, players like Zayas, who was in Montreal at the time, were told by their country to make other arrangements. He got permission to play a few years in Mexico, and eventually came back to Havana where he now lives, a few blocks from the stadium.
"Fidel called me back," he says with a shrug and a smile.
He is proof that politics has never been far from Cuba's baseball diamonds. But this is also true in a literal sense.
Just outside the Industriales stadium where the players exit each night is a billboard painted with a quote from Castro. The words are flanked by the Cuban flag on one side and a giant baseball on the other. It reads: El triunfo estara en la suma del esfuerzo de todos – "Victory will be the sum of everyone's efforts."
As dogma goes, this sign is tame compared to those at other Cuban ballparks. At a stadium 45 minutes outside Havana, on the road to nearby Matanzas, a message on the outfield wall proclaims: Socialismo o muerte. Socialism or death.
These signs are not aging well. Some are peeling, and the wood is splitting. No one's bothered to repaint them in years.
Billy H.C. Kwok/for The Globe and Mail
'Time is on my side'
Inside Havana's stadium after the trouncing of Camaguey, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is describing what led to his monster game-ending grand slam. "It was a fastball," he says. "An easy high one."
Like father, like son.
He is leaning against a cinderblock wall in the darkness, still wearing his uniform. His dream is to play in the major leagues, he says, and to carry his father's name onto a major-league field.
"For all baseball players, getting to the highest level is the biggest goal. It's no secret that the MLB is the highest," he says. "With the changes being made by the country, it could happen tomorrow."
Gurriel Jr. is ranked by Baseball America as the fourth-best player in Cuba. Unlike the others ahead of him, including the older Yulieski, he can afford to wait for change to come. At 22, he can continue honing his game, and if MLB comes calling, he might just be entering the prime of his baseball career.
"Time is on my side, no?"
He talks with the kind of optimism about playing big-league baseball that no Cuban unwilling to defect has been able to express in decades. Gurriel and the others are part of a unique generation – one that stands on the brink of history, yet is stuck on the island due to circumstances beyond their control.
They may be the last of their kind.