Before I began capturing video and writing about Cuban baseball, my photos connected me with the Cuban baseball community. Some of my early photos were the first to circulate as the internet was in it’s naissance. I have had the good fortune to return many times and capture the Cuban National Team in Canada as well. Join me in a new series where I share some of my favourite photos and tell the Stories of some of Cuba’s best players. Today let’s look at Yulieski Gurriel Through My Lens.
As impressive as Yuli Gurriel’s time with the Astros has been, there is always the question of what if surrounding him. What if Yuli had gotten to The Majors much younger? He is inextricably linked in debate with another what if in Cuban legend Omar Linares. The two are often compared as the best third basemen in Cuban National Series history and quite frequently as the best player. Linares never did get a chance to play in MLB, although he did have a short stint in Japan. Many point to this as the ultimate What if in Cuban baseball. This can aid him in the eyes of some purists. Others will point to Yuli having success in the world’s best league as evidence for him. Either way, Yulieski Gurriel is Cuban Baseball royalty.
I was lucky to capture him in action in Havana multiple times before he made his way to America in 2016. Gurriel first rose to prominence as a second baseman for Cuba in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Speculation he would leave Cuba abounded for a decade before it became reality. When he and younger brother Lourdes Jr. left during the Caribbean Series it was a signal that any player could get out. Many speculated Yuli would be the first player to legally sign with an MLB team. His leaving indicated that an agreement between Cuba and the Major Leagues was not imminent. Yuli was 31 at the time and couldn’t afford to rely on bureaucracy to lead him to the world’s grandest baseball stage.
Gurriel needed a higher league to compete in and had already succeeded in Japan with Yokohama. He was putting up a .500/.589/.874 slash line with 15 HR and 51 RBI in just 174 At bats at the time of his defection. Elite Cuban sluggers have put up some gaudy numbers but none as ridiculous as Yuli in 2015-2016. Perhaps the most impressive number was his minuscule 3 strike outs against 38 walks.
Yuli Gurriel would be as advertised and hit a unique walk-off home run during my visit. Cuba has a mercy rule, 10 run lead after 5 innings is a completed game. Yulieski connected in the 6th inning against Ciego de Avila to cement the blow out. Ciego would rebound from that deflating loss and go on to win the title that year. This granted the Tigres the chance to represent Cuba in the Caribbean Series. Ironically the last Cuban uniform Yuli would wear before his defection was of the squad he victimized on that January afternoon.
Yulieski Gurriel would debut with the Houston Astros in 2016 and enter 2017 as their starting First baseman. The defensive adjustment was the toughest, but Yuli has turned himself into a gold glove calibre player at first. He has become a key contributor for Houston especially as they won their first World Series in his rookie year.