Gourriel eyes baseball career outside of native Cuba
Veteran third baseman ponders opportunities years after breaking out at Classic
ISLA DE MARGARITA, Venezuela -- It's 90 minutes before game time and Yulieski Gourriel is holding court inside the home dugout with dozens of microphones, cellphones and cameras inches away from his face.
The Villa Clara third baseman shows signs of the energetic young man who burst onto the international scene at the 2006 World Baseball Classic, but this Gourriel, sporting the beginnings of a goatee and wearing bright orange and blue rimmed sunglasses, has a measured approach. The 29-year-old chooses his words carefully because he knows everything he says will be dissected.
Gourriel, who is dressed in blue Adidas basketball shorts, a black long-sleeved Adidas workout shirt and matching shoes, just looks like a big leaguer. He wears blue and orange socks pulled up to his knees, two athletic necklaces and two rubber wristbands. His batting gloves are from Japan.
"I've played 12 years in Cuba and now I want to play outside. I want to see what it's like and improve," Gourriel said. "It's always been my dream to play the best baseball that I can, be that in the Major Leagues or Japan or wherever. I'd love to play in the United States and when I get permission, I'll play."
The Cuban government allowed Gourriel's Caribbean Series teammate Alfredo Despaigne, a three-time MVP in La Serie Nacional, to play professionally in the Mexican League last summer as part of a new program for players they do not believe to be a threat to defect. As expected, Despaigne returned to the island after 33 games with Piratas de Campeche.
It's unclear if Gourriel, whose parents have close ties to the island's communist party, will be allowed to participate in the program after his season with the Havana Industriales ends this summer.
"I tried last year, but I never heard back," Gourriel said. "They have not given me permission. When our season is over, I hope to get a contract and go play, but it's not just me about me making the decision. I just want to play the best baseball competition I can."
Back in 2006, Gourriel's skills drew comparisons to a young Derek Jeter, but he has lost some support in the scouting community in the years that followed because he can seem uninterested at times. Many believe the Cuban simply gets bored because he experienced so much success at a young age.
After all, Gourriel was an Olympian in 2004 and has represented Cuba in all three World Baseball Classic tournaments. He's traveled all over the world with the national squad and has been part of Cuban championship teams at the Pan American Games, Central American Games, World Baseball Championships and International Cup.
Cuba (0-3) returned to the Caribbean Series this year for the first time since 1960, allowing Gourriel to cross this tournament off of his list.
"He was younger before, so he was a faster runner, but he still has solid-average tools and he's an athletic guy that can swing the bat," said Rene Gayo, Pittsburgh's international scouting director. "He's been one of the top players in Cuba in the past and continues to be. He's playing a little bit bored and obviously, you have some concerns about that, but it's hard to ignore his ability. He would be a good guy to see play in the Major Leagues."
The list of Cuban players to have an impact on Major League Baseball during the last few seasons includes names like Miami's Jose Fernandez, Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman, White Sox players Dayan Viciedo and Alexei Ramirez, Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes, Detroit's Jose Iglesias and Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig. The White Sox signed Cuban slugger Jose Abreu and the Dodgers signed second baseman Alexander Guerrero during the offseason.
All of those players defected from Cuba.
"I think Gourriel can play in whatever league he chooses," said Braves pitcher Yunesky Maya, who defected from Cuba in 2009. "I don't think it's a big secret that the Cuban League is very strong and he's had great results there, but it's a personal decision on what he wants to do. I'm not going to get involved or speculate on what he wants."
Because of the U.S embargo on Cuba, any Cuban defector who wants to do business with an American company must first establish residency outside Cuba and the United States, a process that can take several months, depending on the country. Cuban players must also petition for free agency from Major League Baseball and be unblocked by OFAC before they can enter into a contract with a Major League club. Unblocking can take several weeks.
Cuban players who are at least 23 years old and have played in a Cuban professional league for three or more seasons are exempt from the international signing guidelines established by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, effectively making them free agents once they are eligible to sign with a big league club.
Gourriel has not given up on his Major League dream. He's just not sure if it will ever come true.
"I'm happy for all the Cubans in the Major Leagues and we follow them even though we don't have direct contact with them," he said. "In Cuba, we play a good level of baseball, but when they leave the country, they seem to elevate their game. Maybe we don't have best training conditions or equipment, but once they leave Cuba, they explode. Me, I'm just waiting on permission."