MLB has welcomed a wave of Cuban baseball imports in recent years. And the outcome of the 2017 World Series could be determined by the impact of two of Cuba’s finest — Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig, 26, and Houston Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel, 33. While Puig and Gurriel share roots in the island nation, they took decidedly different paths to big league stardom.
Look past the blue Mohawk and red Rolling Stones-style tongue shaved into his head, and Puig is an inspirational figure who clawed his way from the bottom to live out the American Dream. Puig was not nearly the known commodity that Gurriel was upon leaving Cuba. Puig’s erratic and eccentric personality rubbed some the wrong way in Cuba, as has been the case at times in L.A. But the Bo Jackson physique and production at the plate — Puig hit .330 with 17 HRs in 89 games as a 19-year-old playing for Cienfuegos in 2010-11 — were hard to ignore.
Still, Puig’s defection from Cuba was a dark and twisted journey that even Hollywood would find too far-fetched to film. The story was remarkably told by Jesse Katz in Los Angeles Magazine’s 2014 feature “Escape from Cuba: Yasiel Puig’s Untold Journey to the Dodgers.” It is certainly worth the read. Puig’s transport from Cuba to Mexico to the USA included bribery, blackmail, extortion, kidnapping and even murder.
“The five men piloting Puig’s [cigarette boat] vessel, mostly Cuban Americans, belonged to a smuggling ring whose interests ranged from human cargo to bootleg yachts to bricks of cocaine. … They were all in the pocket of Los Zetas, the murderous Mexican drug cartel,” Katz wrote.
Even after Puig was safely in America and inked to a seven-year, $42 million deal with the Dodgers, he was still dealing with the aftermath of his defection and struggling to sever ties with the shady characters who helped him navigate choppy waters, but also the illogical rules of MLB and the U.S. Treasury Department — which both required defectors to establish residency in a third-party nation before granting employment in the big leagues stateside.
But Puig’s Andy Dufresne-esque crawl through the muck resulted in him eventually coming out clean on the other side, starting in right field and batting cleanup for the National League pennant-winning Dodgers. Puig is undoubtedly an X-factor for Vin Scully’s favorite team, as the Dodgers chase their seventh World Series win in their first appearance in the Fall Classic since 1988.
For those who have followed Gurriel since he was known as “Yulieski Gourriel” (rather than “Yuli Gurriel”), his defection was a long shot, at best. Gurriel was essentially Cuban royalty, as the son of Lourdes Gourriel. A mainstay in Cuba’s juggernaut international team, Lourdes was a national hero after hitting a game-tying home run off Jim Abbott in the ninth inning of a Cuba win over the USA in the gold medal game of the 1988 Baseball World Cup, and also hitting .400 with 10 RBIs in nine games en route to a Cuba gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
Because of Lourdes’ status and friendly relationship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, his sons — Yuli and Lourdes Jr., 24, who is now in the Toronto Blue Jays organization — were seen as the least likely defectors among the celebrated Cuban baseball prospects.
Gurriel led the Cuban National Series (Serie Nacional) in hits, runs, HRs, RBIs and triples during various seasons in the early-and-mid 2000’s, as a power-hitting third baseman for Sancti Spiritus. He was also a star on the international stage for Cuba’s national team, winning a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics and a silver medal at the 2006 World Baseball Classic, where Baseball America named Gurriel the top prospect under-25 in the entire tournament.
But Gurriel could only watch as an endless parade of Cuban prospects signed life-changing MLB contracts. Some were worth the big money (see: Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu). Others, not so much (see: Rusney Castillo, Jorge Soler). In 2014, however, there appeared to be a glimmer of hope for Gurriel.
He signed a deal to play with Yokohama of the Japan Central League, whose summer season did not overlap with Cuba’s winter schedule.
After hitting .305 with an .884 OPS in his lone Japanese season, Gurriel returned to Cuba and continued to rake at a comical rate. In his final Cuban season, Gurriel hit .500 over 174 plate appearances, with 15 HRs and 38 walks compared to just three strikeouts in 2015-16, as the Serie Nacional talent pool continued its mass exodus to MLB.
In Feb. 2016, Yuli and Lourdes Jr. defected from Cuba following the Caribbean Series in the Dominican Republic. The duo did so with apparent approval from the Cuban government. Despite being 32 years old, Yuli signed a five-year, $47.5 million deal with the Astros. Later that year, Yuli made his MLB debut and Fidel Castro passed away, each event representing a significant milestone in Cuban baseball history.
Now, Gurriel is a fan favorite, with arguably the best hair in baseball — well, maybe second to Bryce Harper. As a thirtysomething MLB “rookie” with 15-plus years of professional experience around the globe, Gurriel has shown his usual command of the strike zone and quick hands in the heart of the Houston lineup. And after watching his peers pass him by and play in The Show, Gurriel is finally on the biggest stage, with a chance to win the World Series.
For Puig, it was worth the risk. For Gurriel, his patience has paid off.
By Nathan Rush