Lourdes Gurriel, a member of the Cuban national team in 1992, is now watching his son Yuli in the World Series.
HOUSTON — Imagine living on an island where incredibly talented players do things on a baseball field that are unseen to the outside world. Consider what it must feel like to know how good you are but know you will never be rewarded like a superstar, or acclaimed as an All-Star. Think how you would feel if you never got your due.
Meet Lourdes Gurriel.
He is the 60-year-old man in the gold jacket sitting in the Houston Astros‘ family section at Minute Maid Park. And he is smiling because that dream that was out of reach to him came true for his son, Houston first baseman Yusiel (Yuli) Gurriel. His home runs have sparked the Astros’ offense in Games 3 and 5. His gesture ridiculing Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish also gave offense, and for that he will be punished. But not nearly as badly as his father was.
Twenty-five years ago, Lourdes was the first baseman on the greatest team most baseball fans don’t know about — the 1992 Cuban Olympic team. How good were the Cubans? “I would guess that most of us would have made the major leagues,” Lourdes says. “At least five or six would’ve made the Hall of Fame. Remember — we did win 100 straight international games without a loss.”
But the Cubans were caught in the rundown between East and West, socialism and capitalism, George H.W. Bush and Fidel Castro. In the name of détente, the two countries agreed to play each other in a series of games, home and away, as part of the walk-up to the Barcelona Olympics, the first in which baseball was a medal sport. Cuba wanted to get the better of the USA on the field. The US wanted to win the game off of it.
Because the major league players were otherwise occupied, Team USA was made up of collegians — good collegians, such as Jason Varitek, Charles Johnson, Jason Giambi and an 18-year-old shortstop from Georgia Tech named Nomar Garciaparra. “It was like boys versus men,” says Garciaparra, a six-time All-Star who now broadcasts for SportsNet LA. “But it was an experience I’ll never forget.”
After a revelation — “Wait, it just dawned on me. Yuli is Lourdes’ son!” — Nomar is asked if he remembers the elder Gurriel. “I played against Lourdes — a really strong hitter,” he says. “I can’t overstate how good they all were. I can still picture their infield practice. It was like a circus act, a high-wire circus act that left you mesmerized and a little intimidated. Gurrriel at first, Antonio Pacheco at second, German Mesa at short, Omar Linares at third. Their gloves never seemed to touch the ball. I wanted to learn how to do that.
“I’ll never forget this game we had in Holguin. We were practicing at 10 in the morning, and the stadium was filled. People were waiting there for the game that night. The energy was so electric. You see a sign that says ‘Socialism Or Death,’ but you’re surrounded by this incredible joy for baseball. The Cubans were the best in the world, not for money or politics, but because they loved the game.”
Also on that Cuban team was a man sitting in the ESPN Deportes broadcast booth at Minute Maid Park, directly over Lourdes Gurriel: Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. Five years after Barcelona, the pitcher left Cuba in a boat and landed at Yankee Stadium, where he became a star. “Had we played together as a unit in the major leagues, we might have competed for the pennant. Our very best was Omar Linares, a Hall of Famer, for sure, but Antonio Pacheco, German Mesa, Victor Mesa, Orestes Kindelan were not far behind. Lourdes was a tremendous clutch hitter, just like his son.”
Despite the difference in maturity and experience, Team USA actually gave the Cubans a scare in the fourth round of the Barcelona preliminaries, taking a 5-0 lead in the top of the first. “The kids were good,” says El Duque. “Michael Tucker, Phil Nevin, Jeffrey Hammonds.
“We had to bring in our closer, Omar Ajete, in the first inning to stop them.”
The Cubans came back to win 9-6, then rolled through the tournament (Team USA finished fourth). A year later, the defections began, and major league fans would get to see how talented players such as Livan Hernandez, Osvaldo Fernandez, Ariel Prieto and El Duque were. But most of the members of that team stayed behind. Lourdes became the Cuban national coach and raised three baseball players: Yusiel, Yuniel and Lourdes Jr.
In 2016, MLB sent a goodwill team to Cuba that included Clayton Kershaw and Cuban emigres Yasiel Puig, Bryan Pena and Jose Abreu. The Gurriel sons saw that as a signal that the time was right for them to come to the States, and elder Lourdes, who now lives in Miami as well as Cuba, gave them his blessing.
“Absolutely, no doubt, we were the best team ever,” Lourdes says of his former national roster. “But right now I am living a different dream. My son might be on the best team in baseball 25 years later.”