On deck for the Yanquis: Cuban baseball stars await embargo’s end

·Chief Investigative Correspondent

One of the top sluggers in Cuban baseball says it is his “dream” to come to the United States and play in the major leagues for his favorite team, the New York Yankees.

But Yulieski Gourriel, star third basemen for the powerhouse Havana Industriales and for years a highly regarded prospect by big-league scouts, says he won’t do so until the U.S. government lifts the embargo on Cuba and he gets “permission” from the Cuban government.

Gourriel’s comments in an exclusive interview with Yahoo News underscore the potential for a new infusion of Cuban baseball talent to the majors as a result of recent U.S.-Cuban moves to normalize relations — and the formidable obstacles that still remain.

“This is the dream of all players — to play at the maximum level of baseball in all the world,” Gourriel said in an interview at Estadio Latinamericano, the Havana ballpark where the Industriales play.

Asked what team he would like to play for, Gourriel instantly replied, “the Yankees,” where he would be able to join his favorite player, Alex Rodriguez.

But the 30-year-old Gourriel, who has at times been compared to Derek Jeter, also made it clear he has no intention of bucking the Castro regime — and no interest in defecting to the United States.

He and other Cuban stars “are ready when they say we have permission to play,” he said. “We are ready for the lifting of the blockade. Then we can come play.”

Gourriel is, by all accounts, on the short list of Cuban players being kept by major-league scouts, who have been actively evaluating the Cuban talent pool since the announcement last December by President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro that the two countries will work to improve relations after more than a half-century of Cold War hostilities.

A deft fielder, Gourriel is also a consistent power hitter who has racked up impressive numbers, both in Cuba and in Japan.

“Every time you see [Gourriel], you see something special,” said Eric Nadel, the Texas Rangers play-by-play announcer and a close student of Cuban baseball. “He rises to the occasion in international tournaments. He’s no secret…

“Just look at what he did in Japan last summer,” added Nadel. “He hit over .300 with power. He’s going back there this summer. He’s legitimately a major-leaguer in any league.”

Cuban ballplayers have been coming to the United States for years, of course — stars like former Yankees ace Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Abreu, last year’s American League rookie of the year.

But they and others Cubans have had to follow a tortured path: defecting from Cuba, establishing residency in the United States and then getting “unblocked” — receiving a license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the embargo on Cuba banning direct financial dealings between the two countries.

This year, the Cubans did let 19-year-old infielder Yoan Moncada leave — and then sign a staggering $63 million contract with the Boston Red Sox.

But as that deal shows, there are still considerable money issues to work out, even if Congress were to lift the embargo on Cuba. For now, that’s unlikely to pass a Republican-controlled Congress.

“The Cuban government is going to want to be compensated just the way the clubs in Japan are compensated when one of their players leaves,” said Nadel. “If the Cubans are going to let their players leave, the U.S. teams are going to have to pay the Cuban team, which is essentially the government.”

Meanwhile, the prospect of normalized relations has American sporting-goods entrepreneurs salivating. For the past three months, Barbara Rodriguez, the Cuban-American CEO of Carrera Sports in Fort Myers, Florida, has been trying to sell her American-made bats and balls in Cuba. As she sees it, given Cuba’s national love affair with baseball, there’s an unlimited demand for quality bats and other baseball gear — not just for Cuba’s official baseball league, but for ordinary kids on the street.

“Some of the kids get a broomstick, they tape it, and that’s what they use for bats,” said Rodriguez.

How big a market can Cuba become for her U.S.-based bat and ball company? she was asked.

“I’m going to be for Cuban baseball what Louisville is for major-league baseball in the United States,” she boasted. “You can figure that one out.”

(Cover tile photo: Toru Hanai/Reuters)

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