The death knell for Cuba’s national pastime has been prematurely rung many times, though some recent high-profile defections are ringing that bell again. There is little doubt that the glory years of Cuba’s once-proud baseball empire are a thing of the past, as a decade-long crisis for the sport hit a near free fall in the past two years. An eventual open player exchange with MLB is almost inevitable if U.S.-Cuban relations truly thaw.
By winning 159 straight games in top international amateur events between 1987 and 1997, Cuban teams built one of the sport’s most invincible legacies, and top Cuban players were the island’s greatest celebrities and unmatched heroes. Though they had the talent for potential windfall contracts in the majors, top Cuban stars of the past like Omar Linares, Víctor Mesa, Lourdes Gurriel Sr. and countless others were isolated from MLB by Cold War politics.
Cuba’s baseball prominence has faded recently for several reasons, the biggest being a dilution of talent via more easily accomplished routes to the big leagues, as seen in the loss of players such as Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Céspedes and José Abreu. Sagging economic conditions leading to ramshackle fields and equipment on the island likely conspired to make those defections more likely.
As baseball goes, so goes the nation. More than 200 Cuban ballplayers have abandoned the island nation in the past two-plus years to pursue the dream of MLB stardom. While only a handful could claim realistic expectations for true success in the big time, the impact of these departures has left both the Cuban National Series and a once-vaunted national squad as mere shells of what they once were only a handful of years earlier.
The biggest blow to Cuban pride and on-field potency came in February 2016 with the celebrated defection after the Caribbean Series being held in the Dominican Republic of the talented Gurriel brothers: Yulieski and Lourdes Jr. (known as Yunito). The former, a slugging Gold Glove-level performer at second and third base, had long been recognized as Cuba’s premier performer, ranking among the career leaders in most offensive categories in the island’s National Series. Since the first World Baseball Classic in 2006, Yulieski has been at the head of all MLB scouts’ lists of most-coveted Cubans. The younger Yunito was more of a work in progress, rumored to have star potential but also less polished and in need of some seasoning before going pro.
Sons of former star outfielder Lourdes Sr., the younger Gurriels represented true Cuban baseball royalty and their loyalty remained unquestioned. Yulieski, on numerous occasions, spoke to North American journalists of his desire to play in the majors — hopefully with his beloved New York Yankees — but only if he could do so legally, without abandoning his homeland and the baseball system that had raised him.
Much mystery still surrounds the details of their departure, and there is some suggestion — rumored but not confirmed in Cuba — that it was ultimately triggered by the decision last year of Cuban officials to withhold Yulieski from a second year of a lucrative contract with the Japan Central League Yokohama BayStars, where he had played on loan in 2014.
I spent a recent January morning on a Miami high school practice field with Yunito Gurriel and his father, as Yunito worked out in preparation for joining the Toronto Blue Jays for his first big-league spring training. (Yulieski, who enjoyed a successful debut with the Houston Astros late last summer, was not present, having been summoned to Houston for a preseason physical and other club business.) The visit included a Toronto-based TSN crew filming an upcoming documentary about the Gurriels and their surprising decision to forgo Cuba and cast their lot with North American pros.
Neither the elder nor younger Gurriel was comfortable discussing details of the brothers’ escape from a Cuban squad playing in the 2016 Caribbean Series. But father Lourdes Sr. was nonetheless effusive in his off-camera discussions with me about the current desperate status of the sport on the island and the need for drastic changes if the Cuban domestic leagues are to again thrive or even survive. “We now live in a new reality,” he told me, “and a way must be found for Cuba’s best players to achieve their dreams of playing at the sport’s highest level.”
The departure of the Gurriels will not likely trigger any immediate flood tide of escaping high-profile Cuban prospects, since the island has at least temporarily been stripped clean of nearly all of its coveted performers. The loss of the Gurriels was perhaps more of a final door closing on the sagging Cuban baseball enterprise. While the election of Donald Trump as President leaves U.S.-Cuba relations in a state of new uncertainty, the recent decision of the Gurriels signals that some form of MLB-Cuban détente is now unavoidable.
Despite the signs of decline for the island’s game, there are bright spots that suggest the sport’s talent roster remains vital. Yes, the Cuban squad entering the World Baseball Classic opening round in Tokyo will be a shadow of the 2013 WBC powerhouse squad that featured seven soon-to-defect MLB signees among the eight starting position players. But this year’s Cuban contingent will still feature some hefty talent — slugging outfielder Alfredo Despaigne (who just inked the richest Japanese contract ever with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks), veteran catcher Frank Camilo Morejón and starting pitchers Freddy Asiel Álvarez and Lázaro Blanco — and could still prove a first-round survivor.
It should not go unnoticed that the Cuban entry at the Caribbean Series last month proved a pleasant surprise, barely missing the tournament finale after a heart-breaking 1-0 semifinal loss to host Mexico.
There may be crisis in Havana, but a funeral for island baseball is still a bit premature.
*Feature photos by Eliot J. Schecter / Major League Baseball / Getty Images and Mike Stobe / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images.