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Yuliesky Gurriel: The First One to ever “Break” the MLB Barrier?

Yuliesky Gurriel: The First One to ever “Break” the MLB Barrier?

Posted by Miguel Ernesto on December 22, 2015

The historic visit of Major League Baseball to Cuba represented the first official meeting between the main baseball organization worldwide and the Caribbean country since Baltimore Orioles played in Havana, back in 1999. The presence of such senior executives of Major League Baseball (MLB) as Joe Torre and stars Clayton Kershaw, Nelson Cruz, Miguel Cabrera, as well as four Cuban baseball players, had a tremendous symbolic meaning; but is it going to bring about any outcome in the near future?

Since they left Cuba, dreaming to play in the Major Leagues, Jose Dariel Abreu, Bryan Peña and Yasiel Puig had not been able to return to the country where they were trained as baseball players. The new Cuban migratory policy establishes that the athletes that leave the country by illegal means must wait up to eight years before they can touch Cuban soil again. They traveled as members of the MLB delegation and they could meet their relatives again. They also had the opportunity to feel that their Cuban fans are aware of their successful careers in the United States. Another member of the group, Alexei Ramirez, had already visited Pinar del Rio; while Jon Jay finally stepped on the land where his parents were born.

This meeting, a year after the thaw between Washington and Havana, had significant symbolic meaning. Puig and Abreu sailed away from the island nation, thus risking their lives. Puig’s dramatic story is widely known and it’s likely to be taken to the big screen, with the finest or worst Hollywood style. Both players had to establish their residences in a third country in an effort to sign with a MLB organization.

The Blockade imposed by the United States against Cuba for over half a century stops any Cuban player that lives on the island from formalizing a relation with a US franchise. Therefore, in a bid to make their dream of playing in MLB come true and improve their economy, hundreds of Cuban baseball players have contacted smugglers to take them out of the country, thus promising them high percentages of the future contracts to be signed by those athletes. A lot has been said about the scandals related to this human smuggling, which range from Puig to Leonis Martin. Two Cuban pitchers, Carlos Juan Viera and Alain Tamayo, were recently freed by the Dominican police, since they had been kidnapped by a smuggler.

Could this unpleasant reality be changed? Cuba’s sports authorities have said to be willing to negotiate the legal hiring of baseball players with Major Leagues, without them being forced to relinquish their country. MLB could also be interested in a mechanism to eliminate the mediation of smugglers; nevertheless, with the Blockade still on the way, that agreement is unlikely to be around the corner.

THE GOURRIEL CASE

In 2013, the Cuban sports authorities finally allowed athletes from different disciplines to be signed up by professional teams. One of the cases that attracted more media attention was the signing, in 2014, of Yuliesky Gourriel with the Yokohama DeNa Baystars, Japanese professional league. This player is described as the most complete man that participated in the Cuban National Series and his performance in Japan was acceptable, since he played in 62 games —the contract totaled nearly a million dollars — and he finished with 11 HR and average of 305.

The executives of the team offered him a new contract for nearly 3 million dollars a year, the highest amount ever received by a Cuban athlete with residence in Cuba. However, Gourriel didn’t join the Yokohama for his spring training; he justified his absence with an injury. This situation brought about the cancellation of the contract and it stopped the arrival of Yuliesky’s younger brother, Lourdes Jr.

Why did Gourriel actually fail to comply with such a substantial contract? Lots of speculations were aired, most of which aimed at secret negotiations that would allow Yuliesky to be hired by a MLB franchise. Somebody even mentioned the interest of the New York Yankees in the player. There were some who even expected Gourriel to establish his residence in a third country, but the baseball player reiterated his intention of playing in MLB without relinquishing his home in Havana. MLB denied the rumors related to such talks and the case fell into oblivion.

Gourriel didn’t want to join the Cuban national team to participate in Toronto Pan-Am Games, since the executives didn’t include Lourdes Junior in that team. The split seemed to be imminent; nonetheless, Yuliesky later participated in training sessions with Industriales team and he has been, by far, the best batter in Cuba’s present baseball season. Moreover, he played in the Premier 12 tournament, but his performance wasn’t good.

The approach between Havana and Washington, the critics issued by President Barack Obama against the Blockade and the obvious interest of US entrepreneurs in abolishing this failed policy have put on the table an agreement between MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation.

The “good will tour” taken by MLB, headed by one of its heavyweights (Torre), the presence of super stars Kershaw, Cabrera, Cruz and the consent of Cuban authorities to the return of these players, are clear signs of the bilateral intention of strengthening relations.

Although the tour has been described as successful and the level of trust between MLB and the Cuban Federation has gone up to a new level, it doesn’t mean that the agreement is about to be inked. The Blockade stops, for instance, MLB from establishing a system similar to the one operated by Japan, so MLB teams pay a “negotiation tax” to hire the baseball player; besides, the fact that the Cuban Federation represents the player and, therefore, it receives a percentage of the contract, is another obstacle.

What’s going to happen with Gourriel? Will he be the first one to “break the barrier”? He’s the Cuban baseball player with the highest potential at the moment, but seeing him with a MLB uniform and a considerable bank account would require a scenario in which both parties, supported by their respective governments, are willing to give something up. Washington, even with the Blockade still in force, could find some legal mechanism to clear the way for the signing; while Cuba would step aside and allow Gourriel negotiate on his own. Too many obstacles to be left behind? There is no doubt about it, but everything is to be expected in this context.

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