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“The Legend of La Piña”

           Yuli Gurriel has been an integral component of Houston’s culture ever since his introduction to the city in 2016. We’ve all come to love our crazy-haired first-baseman for his dominating presence in the heart of the order & clutch Crawford Box shots, but the story of how he found himself here is one defined by struggle & sacrifice. One may wonder why a guy who was able to sign a 5-year / $47.5M offer at the age of 31, didn’t do that sooner. The answer is that he couldn’t.

           Yuli Gurriel was born on 6/9/1984 in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba to a family that had a baseball pedigree oozing through its bloodline. His father, Lourdes Gourriel, was a Cuban baseball sensation. After winning the 76’-77’ Cuban National Series Rookie of the Year award, Yuli’s pops went on to a career that helped Cuba secure 6 Baseball World Cup championships & a gold medal in the 1992 Olympics. Once it became apparent that Lourdes’ pair of sons (Yuli & current Blue Jays stud Lourdes Jr.) possessed his superstar genetics, the family essentially became stuck to the confines of Cuba.

           For the past half-century, the Cuban government has done everything in their power to keep their top athletes on the island. The only way for a Cuban-born player to freely sign & play where they want is to literally defect from the country altogether. This task has proven to be a more-than-dangerous over the years, which has encouraged most to not even risk it & provided horror stories for the few that have: The late Jose Fernandez was thrown into a Cuban prison at 14-years-old after his 4th failed escape attempt, and Jose Abreu was forced to eat the fake passport he used to defect. Yasiel Puig suffered severe dehydration from trekking for 30 hours through unforgiving marshlands, just to be captured & held for ransom by human traffickers in Mexico. It’s a really fucked up situation.

           The eldest Gurriel knew trying to defect would threaten the well-being of his children, and Yuli knew the same for his younger brother, so they stayed put. Following his playing career, Gurriel moved on to coaching his two sons, where he got to watch his oldest put on an absolute clinic. After leading the Cuban National Series in hits & runs in 04’-05’, he came back the next season to top the league in runs, RBIs, triples and was one shy of the record with 27 dingers. He also followed in his father’s footsteps with an impressive stint playing on the Cuban national team, leading the club to 2 World Cup championships & a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics.

           Yuli hasn’t disclosed a ton on the details of how he planned his defection, but it can be assumed that he wanted to, like in his plate appearances, be methodical about it. In 2006, there was a hasty article posted by ESPN that stated Yuli was in the process of defecting, which he responded to by immediately flying back to Cuba & disputing the claim. When Fidel Castro sees your family as Cuban baseball royalty, you’ve got to mind your steps. It wasn’t until 8 years after that report dropped that he was granted permission to sign a 1-year contract with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in Japan, where he casually batted .305 with 11 dingers & 30 ribbies through 62 games. I assume this was a move aimed to test how tight his leash was, and he must’ve figured it out because he & his brother finally pulled the trigger in early 2016. After competing in a Caribbean World Series game in the Dominican Republic, they snuck away and made their way to Haiti, before being granted asylum in the U.S.

Yuli gets real about his defection in a 2019 interview with La Vida Baseball

           Most fans have expressed anger over Yuli’s situation, claiming that it cost him a Hall of Fame career. Maybe it did, but to say it was all a waste would be utter blasphemy; he’s been an absolute monster since arriving in Houston. First off, he’s completely locked down the first-base position for the Astros by leading the league in fielding percentage over the past 2 seasons, and gaining Gold Glove recognition year after year. He’s an RBI machine who has a contact-swing with pop, so you can pretty much throw anywhere in the lineup. He’s racked up 2 Player of the Week Honors & a Player of the Month Award. Now he’s smashing it once again in 2021, posting top 10 AL stats in *deep breath* batting average, runs created, hits, extra-base hits, RBIs, OPS, on-base %, singles & he leads the league in doubles.

           Would I have loved to watch Yuli Gurriel ball out for an extra decade in the MLB? Duh, every true baseball fan would’ve, but he wouldn’t be the same guy that he is today. Yuli is a ballplayer whose past is clearly displayed in his play. It’s impossible to tell if he’d have the mental focus to produce clutch World Series Game 7 dingers, had he not gone through the heartbreaks of being the final out in multiple championship games for Cuba (2006 WBC / 2008 Olympics). If it weren’t for the geopolitical implications associated with his home country, he wouldn’t have traveled the path that allowed him to develop his game in 3 of the best baseball leagues the world has to offer. The sheer display of loyalty & discipline he showed by putting his family above himself speaks volumes about the man’s character, and it’s prompted the Houston Astros & their fans to present him with a level of trust that is rarely earned so quickly. It’s been a pleasure to watch this man write every page of the “Legend of La Piña”, but with the way he’s been ballin’, I doubt we’ll see the end of his tale anytime soon.

@lilbrotaylor

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