Cuba’s Latest Sports Defectors

Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

Yulieski and Lourdes Gourriel. Photo: AIN
Yulieski and Lourdes Gourriel. Photo: AIN

HAVANA TIMES —The news divulged during Cuba’s TV Round Table program of Monday, February 8 made quite an impact: it was a note issued by the National Sports and Recreation Institute (INDER) reporting that two star baseball players from the island’s national selection had defected, none other than the Gourriel brothers (the super-talented Yuliesky and excellent prospect Lourdes). They had been acting as reinforcements for Ciego de Avila’s Tigres at the Caribbean Series held in the Dominican Republic, where Cuba’s team didn’t perform all too well.

We’re now more than accustomed to losing many of the luminaries of our decimated baseball teams. Before and until recently, we were taught to label these players traitors. We would never find out what had become of them, in their careers abroad or personal lives. They were quite simply dead to us.

Before the arrival of new technologies, the absolute power of the government’s media monopoly kept us at the mercy of what they wanted us to know. The now popular weekly film, news and series “package” sold informally around Cuba has had a liberating effect, in this sense. Things can no longer be kept from Cubans, despite the limited access to the Internet and the fact the government controls all radio, television and printed media.

Like everything else, sports in Cuba are mixed with politics and political interests prevail over all others. That is why, if an athlete wishes to become a professional and decides to climb up to that level, they are forced to become an unpatriotic defector.

The INDER note is unprecedented – nothing similar had been done before. The norm had been to never speak of the “defectors” again. I believe these defections are going to set a precedent and bring about changes to Cuban sports. Our game has declined, not only because of the athletes we lose but also because of this mania of creating many new provinces and, with them, local teams. As a result of this, instead of having a handful of good teams, we have plenty of bad ones.

Star players face a quality pitcher today and, for the next three games, bat away against rookie or downright mediocre hurlers. The same holds for pitchers: their skills are used fully against two or three players, and the rest is a cake-walk. When they have to play against seasoned teams in professional leagues, where all players are stars, they run into real problems.

They get anxious, take a while to adapt and, since these are short tournaments, they are left behind. At the last Caribbean Series, Pinar del Rio’s Vegueros managed to pick up its game at the last minute and walked away victorious. That was a show of the talent Cuban players have. But they are lacking in competitive rigor, which they can’t find at home.

Any talented player aspires to play quality baseball, with rigor, where they can unfold all of their potential and grow as athletes. To say nothing of the money, which one always needs and is a clear indicator of success.

Players in all sports dream of becoming professionals, which means playing at the highest level. In baseball, being a professional means playing in the Major Leagues. The Major Leagues are in the United States, the historical enemy of the Cuban revolution. What a pickle!

Like everything else, sports in Cuba are mixed with politics and political interests prevail over all others. That is why, if an athlete wishes to become a professional and decides to climb up to that level, they are forced to become an unpatriotic defector. Things have been opening up in this connection for some time, as Cuba is forced by need to change, in a world that has no room for static mindsets.

Before the arrival of new technologies, the absolute power of the government’s media monopoly kept us at the mercy of what they wanted us to know. But today, things can no longer be kept from Cubans, despite the limited access to the Internet.

Within this new context, it is the US blockade, more than the politicization of sports in Cuba, that is chiefly responsible for keeping Cuban stars out of the Major Leagues – or at least those hired through INDER. The blockade seems to be coming to an end, but an athlete’s lifespan is limited and those who feel ready cannot afford to wait. To wait means to let the opportunity pass.

It is however unjust to worry about the future of some and ignore the future of many. Athletes may now be making news, as are artists and doctor, but, in Cuba, there’s plenty of other talent that’s stuck, withering and underused.

These people are also losing precious time waiting for improvements – or forced to do so – because of the protectionist wariness of our leaders, who move “slowly but surely.” The face of a baseball player or artist we see on the news is but the tip of a huge iceberg, concealed by the cold, stagnant water of socialist and revolutionary Cuba, imprisoned by the extremist ideologies of the 20th century.

Jose Marti once said: “it isn’t easy to feel prepared for greatness and having to content oneself with the puerile.” How many Cubans feel this way? That is why I do not think badly of those who tire of waiting. I am saddened the Gourriel brothers can no longer contribute to our team, looking ahead to the next World Classic and other events, but I am happy for them. Good luck, compatriots!

6 thoughts on “Cuba’s Latest Sports Defectors

  • Personal story relating to Cuba and it’s baseball players. In the early fifties as a four year old, my dad developed cancer and via an investment lost all the families money. I remember that trauma, and the one thing that linked my father and I during that period was baseball. He used to tell me how he went to yankee stadium as a kid to see babe ruth. He was a cub reporter for the herald tribune and saw so many yankee games. I developed a love for the game and as I grew older got heavy into the yankees. It was the players who made this little kid happy, maris, mantle, ford, richardson, saw them all for a .25 and so they were my idols. The players gave me the peace to sleep at night and lose my fears. Fast forward, Cuba, a country in tough times. I’m sure its citizens AND kids love baseball and their players are probably idolized. Yulieski and Lourdes Gourriel defection is heartbreaking for some and so it’s not only politics, it’s peoples heart and soul!

    Reply
    • Nice reflection. Not so heartbreaking when you consider how easy it should be for Cubans to continue to follow the careers of the favorite stars. These guys are just a Twitter feed and an Internet livestream away. …wait, we are talking about Cuba though.

      Reply
      • “…we are talking about Cuba though.” Yes, Moses, as an apologist for Batista and the Mafia, you do a lot of “talking” about Cuba, especially if “talking” is a euphemism for “propaganda.” Cubans on the island, not in U. S. mansions, should be allowed to determine its future. Propagandists hurling bricks at the vulnerable island from safe havens are bound and determined to not let Cubans on the island breathe long enough to determine their own fate. As far as I can tell, propagandists in the U. S. are seeking larger mansions, among many other uncontested Cuban goodies.

        Reply
        • I don’t get the US mansion metaphor? However, maybe we agree and you don’t see it. I too believe strongly in the self-determination of the Cuban PEOPLE. That’s why I so strongly oppose the Castro oligarchy (the CASTROS). If you have misunderstood my comments as support for the prior Batista dictatorship and the criminal Mafia in partnership with that regime, then let me be clear: I support full democracy for the Cuban people. By definition, this implies my opposition to any former or current political ideology that would impose a form of government other than one voted for in an open, independent multiparty election. Rich, I assume that you are not a complete idiot. So enough with the accusations that opposing the Castros means supporting a dictatorship that disappeared nearly 60 years ago.

          Reply
    • I too, bimack, was a kid in the 1950s in Virginia. My uncles took me to many Washington Senators games. I remember on bad Washington teams, the Senators had two of the best pitchers in the Majors in Cuban righthanders Camilo Pasquel and Pedro Ramos. We tried to see every home game they pitched and the games then were mostly daytime affairs. I saw Pasquel pitch a 4-hitter one Saturday afternoon and Ted Williams got all four of the hits for the Boston Red Sox. Ted, I still believe, was the best hitter in baseball history. I hated the mighty Yankees but, like you, I fondly remember watching Mantle, Maris, Ford, Richardson, Kubek, Berra, etc. when the Yankees came to Washington.

      Reply
      • Great times indeed and do I ever remember Jimmy Piersall! The fact is we had other diversions as well, TV, radio, magazines etc whereas Cuba has family and friends but baseball seems to liven up the faces and think of better moments like it did when I went from a grungy train ride to the entrance to Yankee Stadium, fresh grass and pristine surroundings. Something has to change as from what I’m reading the two brothers wanted to work something out with the Cuban Baseball League but no solution.

        Reply

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