The Significance of the Gourriel Brothers Decision to Leave Cuba

The news that the Gourriel brothers would not be returning to Cuba has led to all manner of controversies.

As I see it, this is without a doubt the most significant – albeit erroneously called – “desertion” in Cuban baseball history.

The decision by the two brothers – and 31-year-old Yulieski Gourriel in particular – has caught the attention of all main US sports publications and that of the media in other parts of the world as well.

MLB.com and its analysts have not tired of saying that Yulieski is ready to make his mark in the Major Leagues today. The BBC devoted a news segment to covering the story. Both the English and Spanish-language versions of ESPN have published numerous headlines announcing the players’ decision. Baseball America, The New Herald (the first to publish the news, incidentally), and the newspapers of many different countries (including Cuba), have also covered the story.

All of this contrasts with the reaction from Cuban aficionados, who still appear stuck – or asleep – in the 20th century, and with the paradigms of a society that is rapidly changing under their very noses, without making them change.

The comments addressing the players’ decision published by Cuba’s official media have been negative in around 80 % of cases. In addition, the hasty condemnation voiced by the heads of the Cuban delegation the very morning of Monday, led by commissioner Higinio Velez, make it quite clear that reality does not mirror the alleged changes that even the Cuban Baseball Federation claimed it would implement, welcoming, a mere two months ago, players formerly considered “deserters” and treating them as heroes, in a totally cordial atmosphere.

The comments made by fans could be explained in baseball terms. As we know, the Gourriel brothers, members of Cuba’s new generation of players, inherited the “hatred” and “admiration” that their father, Lourdes Gourriel, once inspired throughout the island.

Gourriel Sr. Was the most opportune batter of his day at Cuban and international tournaments, but he was taken to such sporting events all the time, regardless of the performance of other talents.

This created two bands: those who hated him and considered it an injustice to other players and those who felt nothing but admiration for him, quite simply because of his star performance on behalf of Cuba.

Yulieski Gourriel, the most respected player in the family following his father’s retirement, was raised within Cuban tournaments, playing for his native province of Sancti Spiritus for nearly the entirety of his career. This would not prove to his favor among fans, owing to the rivalry that Cuba’s new contenders maintained with the capital’s renowned squadron, Industriales.

In addition, Gourriel had to compete, day in and day out, in Cuba and abroad, to become the same opportune player his father was, something the player could never manage, particularly because of a degree of rivalry and a period in time that could never be compared to what his father faced.

The star player would suffer much disdain at Cuban stadiums, but none was comparable to what he faced at Havana’s Latinoamericano Stadium, where fans wouldn’t wait a second to attack him. This went on until Gourriel unexpectedly switched uniforms and joined the capital’s squadron, a mere three years ago.

The decision to leave Cuba in the early morning of February 8, however, marks a new stage in desertions by Cuban players.

No player before him, neither Rene Arocha nor Orlando “Duque” Hernandez, not even Jose A. Contreras, or, more recently, Yoenis Cespedes or Jose Dariel Abreu, had the status or meant what Yulieski Gourriel meant for Cuban baseball today.

Yulieski Gourriel en second World Baseball Classic in 2009. Photo: juventudrebelde.cu

Yulieski was Cuba’s banner abroad, the player who didn’t give in, not to the millions he was offered year after year or the fact his own teammates in the national selection were constantly leaving the country. If we wanted to get a picture of who could compare to Yulieski Gourriel in terms of what he represents for Cuban baseball, we would have to go back 25 years and invoke that now distant match between Cuba and the United States, in 1991, and imagine that, rather than Rene Arocha, Omar Linares had decided not to return to Cuba.

That is the only way we can make a comparison to Yulieski Gourriel’s decision, though we have grown accustomed to these incidents already because of how often players leave the island these days.

Like his brother Lourdes Jr., Yulieski Gourriel will no doubt play at the highest level of baseball in the world, i.e. the Major Leagues. To tell the truth, it doesn’t matter to me whether these two succeed or fail in their efforts. At this stage that is what least matters. We should have no doubt, however, that what these players did yesterday could well change the way in which Cubans think of and handle baseball once and for all, becoming the point of departure for future and needed changes.

I hope I’m not wrong.