Baseball in Cuba is religion. It is a kind of philosophical street language that connects all social strata and adds spice to the essence of our identity. In this great show, the main protagonists are the baseball players, especially if you are dealing with one who is so mediatic and gifted with a sublime talent to play baseball, such as Yulieski Gurriel, son of the legendary Lourdes Gurriel.

To get a closer look at this slugger, a native of the province of Sancti Spítirus, Play-Off «captured» him on the grass of the very same Latin American Stadium. His achievements in his sports career are many, but we wanted to inquire about one of the most significant and recent ones: his insertion in the Japanese Professional League (NPB). «The Japanese league gave me a lot, I learned a lot. Playing there has been one of the best experiences of my sports career. That baseball is at a high level, the pitching in Japan has nothing to envy to that of the Major Leagues in the United States,» says the thirty-year-old proudly, owner and master of the famous five tools so longed for by the scouts.

Yulieski Gourriel batting with Industriales
PHOTO: Paola Cabrera Rodríguez

Japanese baseball has produced superstars of the caliber of Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, to name just a few. During his first season in Nippon baseball, Gurriel played for the Yokohama DeNa BayStars, «one of the so-called weak teams in that championship, but we were able to get up and finish close to qualifying for the postseason.

In that campaign he dazzled with his talent and skills, averaging 305, with 22 doubles and 11 home runs in 239 at-bats, in addition to driving in 30 runs and scoring another 46.

[quotes quotes_style=»bpull» quotes_pos=»left»]»In Cuba there are many players with potential to play in the NPB, although it would be good for them to go through the minor (leagues).»[/quotes]

«Rubbing shoulders with players and pitchers of that level always helps, it gives you tools that serve to successfully face the different circumstances of the game. I recognize that to adapt to Japanese baseball I had to make several adjustments, because the tactical thinking of the pitchers is completely different from those of Cuba, they have a lot of control and more variants to try to defeat you. And I had a lot of work to adapt to that culture and everything that involves being alone in a completely new place. It is very difficult because the Japanese are different from the Cubans in almost every way, but I was able to overcome and get ahead», confesses the great player, who in 2015 will return to defend Yokohama’s flannel, for a very well paid contract.

Yulieski Gourriel at third base
PHOTO: Paola Cabrera Rodríguez

Like Gurriel, other Cuban players will participate this year in the NPB, as part of the policy of insertion of athletes, something that will undoubtedly lead to a substantial improvement in the growth of Cuban baseball.

«The more players go to Japan or to any competitive league, the higher the level of the Cuban team to face international tournaments. I believe that in Cuba there are many players with potential to play in the NPB, although it would be good if they went through the minor (leagues),» Gurriel said.

His international experience is also enriched by the fact that he is a veteran of three editions of the World Classic. So we took the opportunity to ask the burning question: Should Cuba field a unified team for the IV World Baseball Classic in 2017? Although skepticism around a blunt «no comment» was always latent, everything flowed in an atmosphere without worries or self-censorship: «As long as they give permission and it is for the good of Cuba, I am not against a unified team in the World Classic. Whoever wants to come can come, although we must always have respect for the players here».

This presumably unified squad could include starter José Dariel Abreu (2014 American League Rookie of the Year), fantastic outfielder Yasiel Puig, stopper Aroldis Chapman (three-time All-Star and owner of the fastest pitch in baseball history at 105 miles per hour), outstanding torpedo player Alexei Ramírez or slugger Kendry Morales, top-level stars in the American Major Leagues.

[quotes quotes_style=»bpull» quotes_pos=»right»]«As long as they give permission and it is for the good of Cuba, I am not against a unified team in the World Classic. Whoever wants to come can come, although we must always have respect for the players here».[/quotes]

«It would be very difficult to be a starter on that team. They play the best baseball in the world, it’s a very high level, but you can do it. It will be a strong fight for the position,» warned the top active home run hitter in the Cuban national baseball series, and recently crowned champion of the 2015 San Juan Caribbean Series, after being requested as reinforcement of the Cuban champion, the Pinar del Río Vegueros.

The formation of a national team without exclusions would give Cuba an important power in the IV Classic, «we would be able to fight toe to toe against anyone, without forgetting that this tournament is very tough, with the best players in the world and increasingly in better sporting shape«.

The Industriales’ pre-striker, the most popular and victorious team in the Caribbean nation, also referred to the U.S. Major League Baseball tournament: «Playingin the U.S. Major Leagues is the goal of any player, it is the highest level. As long as I have permission from Cuba I would be willing to play in the Big Show.»

Yulieski Gourriel
PHOTO: Paola Cabrera Rodríguez

Finally, the best player of the national series at present regretted having been so criticized during his career, «although I do not hold a grudge against anyone, these are things that happen and you have to learn to live with them. People only expect extraordinary things from me, maybe that’s why they demand so much from me, that creates an extra pressure, complicated, but I feel ready to face it and give glory to Cuba in the international arena».