Following our first post on the organization of baseball in Cuba, today we will examine the domestic and international playing career of one of Cuba's favorite sons and everyone's favorite new Astro, Yulieski Gurriel Castillo.
**Please note that foreign rate statistics will be presented as is, while counting stats will be presented along with a pro-rated 162 game total in parentheses ()**
The domestic career of Yulieski Gurriel began in Serie Nacional 41 (2001-2002) with the Gallos of Sancti Spíritus. The son of the legendary Cuban National Team great Lourdes Gurriel Sr., Yulieski had lofty expectations and he did not disappoint, batting .300/.320/.462 with 7 HR (12 ) and 50 RBI (90) as a 17 year old rookie and finishing second in the rookie of the year voting to Kendrys Morales.
Yuli followed up this strong rookie showing with two campaigns and teamed with LF Frederich Cepeda to give Sancti Spíritus a strong 1-2 punch in the middle of their lineup. In Serie Nacional 44 (2004-2005), Gurriel established himself as the best player in Cuba, batting .337/.390/.597 with 24 HR (43), 92 RBI (165), 12 SB (22) with 1 CS (2), and was named the Most Valuable Player.
He followed this up in Serie Nacional 45 (2005-2006) with an even better campaign, crushing 27 HR (48) and 95 RBI (172) while batting .332/.425/.652 and even tossed in 23 SB (41). In Serie Nacional 49, Gurriel cracked a whopping total of 31 HR (56), tying with Granma outfielder Alfredo Despaigne and falling one short of Despaigne's record of 32, set the year before.
Following the 52nd Serie Nacional, Lourdes Gurriel Sr., who had been diagnosed with a dilated left ventricle in his heart, was approved for housing transfer from Sancti Spíritus to La Habana province to continue his ongoing medical treatment.
With the movement of the family to La Habana, the Gurriel brothers, including Yulieski, were now members of the Leones Azules, Cuba's most storied team. But the change in scenery didn't change the outcomes for Gurriel, who continued his tear through the Serie Nacional, compiling a career line of .368/.465/.648 while wearing Habana blue and white.
Nippon Professional Baseball
Following his 2013 season, Gourriel was granted a work visa from the Cuban government allowing him to sign with a professional league overseas. Still barred from signing in the US without voiding his Cuban citizenship, Gurriel instead signed on with the Yokohama Bay Stars of Nippon Professional Baseball, agreeing to a one year contract worth 350 million yen (a little over 3 million dollars).
Gurriel joined the Baystars partway through the 2014 season, going 3-4 with 2 doubles and a single in his first game. He finished the season batting .305/.349/.536 with 11 HR (29) and 30 RBI (78) while swiping 3 (8) bases.
During the following offseason, Gurriel ran into trouble regarding his contract with Yokohama. He had returned to Cuba during the offseason to rehab a hamstring injury, and failed to report to Yokohama during either the pre-season or regular season, preferring the treatments available to him in Cuba as well as the comfort of a familiar setting.
Baystars GM Shigeru Takada claimed that Gurriel "[didn't] fully understand what a contract is", which is plausible considering the amateur status of players in Cuba and their contractual relationship to their teams. Eventually, Yokohama terminated Gurriel's contract, and he returned to Industriales for the 55th Serie Nacional.
It is in international competition in which Gurriel has made the biggest name for himself in Cuba, as tournament play is regarded as the pinnacle of the baseball year. Gurriel debuted on the Senior National team as an 18 year-old backing up Michel Enriquez at third base during the 2002 Intercontinental Cup, where Cuba claimed gold.
By the next year, at the 2003 World Cup, Gurriel was the starting second baseman for Las Selecciones where he batted .358/.400/.789 and clubbed 5 doubles and 3 HR for the undefeated gold medal winners. In the quarterfinal game, Gurriel led off for Cuba in the 9th inning trailing Brazil 3-2, and promptly cracked a triple to deep right field. He eventually scored the winning run on Kendrys Morales' 2-run game winning home run.
In the semifinal, he was at it again, going 2-3 with a double and a homer, scoring 2 and driving in 2 more of Cuba's 6 runs as they beat Taiwan and went on to win gold. Gourriel likewise won gold at the 2004 Olympics, helping Cuba to reclaim its top spot following their defeat in the gold medal game in 2000 at the hands of an inspired Ben Sheets and the US.
In 2006, Gurriel was named to the Cuban team for the inaugural World Baseball Classic as the starting second baseman. In the opening game against Panama, with the score tied 4-4 in the 9th inning, Gurriel pulled an inside fastball by Manny Acosta into the left field bleachers to give Cuba a 6-4 lead.
They would go on to win 8-6 in extra innings. They would follow that win up with an 11-2 win over Netherlands, and a crushing 12-2 defeat the hands of Puerto Rico. Despite the thrashing, Cuba advanced finishing second in the group behind PR.
In the second round Pool 2, Cuba opened with a 7-2 victory over Venezuela, defeating former Cy Young winner Johan Santana, but was then dispatched 7-3 by the mighty Dominican Republic. The final game of the group would be a rematch of Cuba and Puerto Rico, with the winner advancing to the semifinal game. Gurriel struggled at the plate in a low scoring game, but made his lasting mark in the 7th inning. With 2 out and runners on 1st and 3rd, Carlos Beltran stepped to the plate in a 4-2 game.
After working the count full against Yunieski Maya, Beltran singled to center scoring Alex Cintron from third. Carlos Tabares, the Cuban centerfielder, bobbled the ball in the outfield, prompting Jose Oquendo to try to send Ivan Rodriguez home trying to score from first. Gurriel received the throw from Tabares at the second base bag and relayed a perfect strike to Ariel Pestano to nail Rodriguez at the plate and preserve Cuba's 4-3 lead, which proved to be the final score.
It is considered one of the iconic moments of Cuban international baseball.
The Cubans followed up this upset of Puerto Rico with an even more shocking upset of the tournament favorite Dominican republic. Gurriel went 2-4 with a run scored against reigning Cy Young winner Bartolo Colón to back the brilliant pitching of Yadel Martí and Pedro Lazo.
Gurriel and Cuba couldn't keep up the magic in the final against Japan. Japan jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the first inning, and though Cuba fought back to close the score to 6-5, Japan eventually put Cuba away 10-6. Gurriel had a quiet game, going 1-5 and striking out to end the game against Akinori Otsuka.
Overall, Gurriel had a strong tournament, batting .273/.342/.515 with 2 HR, 6 RBI and 8 runs scored in the 8 Cuban games. He was named the tournament All-Star second baseman.
In 2008, Gurriel was named to the Cuban Olympic team. He struggled at the plate for Cuba, posting a .229/.341/.286 line, and driving in only a single run over the course of Cuba's 9 game run. Nevertheless, buoyed by the strong play of teammates Alfredo Despaigne, Alexei Bell, and Frederich Cepeda, Cuba advanced to the gold medal game accumulating a 7-1 record including a 4-2 win over Yu Darvish and Japan, and a 10-2 victory over Stephen Strasburg and the United States.
The gold medal game against South Korea was a tense affair, as Korea's Hyun-Jin Ryu and Cuba's Norberto Gonzalez clamped down on the offense through six innings, leaving the score tied 1-1. In the 7th, Pedro Lazo, coming off a three inning relief performance the prior day, relieved Gonzalez, but was touched up for 2 runs, giving South Korea a 3-1.
Alexei Bell homered for Cuba in the 7th to make it 3-2, but the Cubans entered the bottom of the 9th inning still trailing. A single and two walks loaded the bases against Ryu with 1 out, before Korea went to its closer Tae-Hyun Chong. He faced Gurriel with the game on the line and induced a gold medal winning double play.
Gurriel finished the tournament batting a meager .229/.341/.286 and driving in only a single run. Cuba received their second Olympic silver medal.
In the 2009 WBC, Gurriel joined a largely revamped Cuban team featuring 5 new players in the starting lineup. Cuba went undefeated (3-0) in the opening round including a 16-4 mercy rule thrashing of Mexico. In the second round, however, Cuba again ran into their WBC boogeyman Japan.
Despite beating Mexico for a second time, by a 7-4 score, Cuba was defeated twice by Japan by scores of 6-0 and 5-0 behind two dynamite performances by Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hisashi Iwakuma, and was eliminated from the tournament. It was the first major tournament since 1959 in which te Cuban team had failed to at least reach the final.
Despite the disappointing showing for the Cuban team, Gurriel shined again sporting a .333/.333/.625 line, cracking 2 HR while driving in 6 runs and scoring 5 in Cuba’s 6 game run.
Yulieski returned for the 2013 World Baseball Classic, joining a Cuban team that was loaded with offensive power, but a little short on pitching prowess. Las Selecciones opened with convincing wins of 5-2 and 12-0 against Cuba and China, but then faced their long-time WBC rivals Japan.
This time, though, behind the strong pitching of Wilbur Perez, Yander Guevara, and Norberto Gonzalez, and the offensive firepower of Alfredo Despaigne and Yasmany Tomas, Cuba knocked off Japan in Fukuoka 6-3.
The good sentiments were short-lived, however, as Cuba opened round two with a shocking 6-2 loss to the Kingdom of Netherlands, despite Gurriel’s 2-4 performance. The Cubans rallied from elimination in the next game crushing Taiwan 14-0 to set up a rematch with the Dutch. The game was back and forth as the teams traded 2 run innings knotting up the score at 6 heading into the 9th.
Then in the bottom of the 9th, the Netherlands loaded the bases against three Cuban pitchers before Kalian Sams won it with a walk off sac-fly to eliminate Cuba. Gurriel had a somewhat underwhelming tournament, finishing at .280/.308/.480 with 1 HR, 4 RBI and 3 R.
After Cuba returned to the Serie del Caribe in 2014 for the first time since 1960, Yulieski joined the 2015 squad as a reinforcement player for the Serie Nacional champions from Pinar del Río. Wearing the Green and Yellow of the Pinareños, he helped guide Cuba to its first Serie del Caribe title in over half a century.
Cuba opened with losses to Mexico and Dominican Republic, putting them squarely behind the eight ball and in risk of a quick elimination. They rallied, however, to win 3 of the 4 remaining games including seminal a semifinal victory over Venezuela and a payback game against Mexico to win the crown.
Although Frederich Cepeda was the hero of Cuba’s cinderella run and was named tournament MVP, Gurriel was no slouch, backing the MVP with a .333/.360/.458 line with 3 RBI and 5 R.
Yulieski returned for one final hurrah with Cuba, being again named as reinforcement player to the Serie Nacional champions Ciego de Ávila. Although a depleted Cuban team struggled to a 1-4 record, Gurriel shined in his last hurrah wearing Cuban reds, batting .450/.500/.500.
Following the completion of Cuba’s final game, a 7-2 elimination at the hands of eventual champion Mexico, Yulieski and his younger brother Lourdes Jr. remained behind in Santo Domingo and eventually immigrated to the US, seeking to sign with MLB.
The G(o)urriel Family
No discussion of Yulieski Gurriel’s importance in Cuban baseball culture would be complete without a mention of the status of the Gurriel’s as "Cuba’s First Family of Baseball."
Lourdes Sr. was a longstanding star on the Cuban national team, and was likewise one of the veteran leaders during the golden era from the late 80’s into the 90’s. Following his playing career, he was a successful manager for Sancti Spíritus and also managed overseas in Nicaragua.
Yulieski’s older brother, Yunieski, is a strong and solid outfielder for Sancti Spíritus and Industriales. Over the course of his 16 seasons in the Serie Nacional, he compiled a .274/.339/.358 playing primarily in center field. Over the past two seasons, Yunieski has played abroad in the Canadian-American Baseball Association, where he has batted .362/..422/.420.
Yuli’s younger brother, Lourdes Jr., is a rising star after his 6 seasons in the Serie Nacional, where he batted .277/.362/.426 while playing 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, and LF. addition to their wealth of talent, part of the cultural appeal of the Gurriel family is that that they have, for most of their careers, played outside of the dominant Habana and Santiago de Cuba squads, for the small Sancti Spíritus province.
In this sense, they had much the same appeal that small market heroes such as Henry Aaron or Roberto Clemente had for MLB fans. Additionally, both Yulieski and Lourdes Sr.’s long standing unwillingness (until now) to depart the island despite the promise of American riches has endeared the Gurriels to baseball lovers all over the island.
For an entire generation of Cuban baseball fans (including myself), Yulieski Gurriel is the face of the game, and the symbol of the strength and pride of Cuban baseball. While all Houston fans are surely anxious to see Gurriel don the Astros colors and step into the batter’s box, just know that when he does, the eyes of a whole baseball nation will be watching.