The way Lourdes Gurriel Sr. introduces himself these days — “I’m the father of three beautiful sons: Yunieski Gurriel, Yulieski Gurriel and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.” — belies the exploits of a figure known in his homeland as El Hombre de los Grandes Momentos.
The Man of the Big Moments.
Long before his two youngest sons broke into the Major Leagues — Yuli with the Astros and Lourdes Jr. with the Blue Jays — the patriarch of the Gurriel family established himself as a beloved baseball legend in his native Cuba.
From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, Gurriel was a star in the Serie Nacional, Cuba’s top league, winning two batting titles and an MVP award and hitting .323 with 2,026 hits, 247 home runs and 1,077 RBIs in more than 1,700 games.
It was on the world stage that Gurriel honed his reputation as a clutch player. At a time when Cuba was the juggernaut of amateur baseball, the slugging outfielder was a key cog on the national team for 15 years, delivering big hits in the Olympics, Baseball World Cup, the Pan American Games, and other tournaments.
One of Gurriel’s most iconic moments came in the finale of the 1988 Baseball World Cup in Italy. He hit a game-tying, ninth-inning home run against Jim Abbott, a future big leaguer, that propelled Cuba to victory over Team USA. Four years later, at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, he slashed .400/.439/.692 with 10 RBIs in nine games to help his country capture gold.
After retiring as a player, Gurriel managed in the Serie Nacional, as well as the national team, and coached for Team Cuba in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Fidel Castro’s communist government barred Gurriel and other elite Cuban players from testing their mettle in MLB. Since Castro rose to power in 1959, defection by abandoning the national team during a tournament or escaping the island has, until recently, been the only way for Cubans to make it to the Majors.
Given the number of Cuban defectors who have transitioned successfully to the big leagues — Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, to name a recent few — it’s hard to look at Gurriel’s career stats and not wonder what might have been.
“The pride of every ballplayer is to play in the Major Leagues,” Gurriel said during an interview in Spanish with LasMayores.com last October at the family home in Houston. “If you do well, good for you. If you do poorly, you do poorly, but at least you had a chance to put yourself to the test.”
Looking to curb the human trafficking element that defection often entails, last month, MLB, the MLBPA, and the Cuban Baseball Federation announced an agreement that would create a legal path for Cuban players to join Major League clubs. It’s the kind of deal that might have allowed Gurriel to play in the Majors, while charting a different course for his sons. The two youngest defected while in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo in 2016.
While he declined to comment on the new agreement, Gurriel expressed satisfaction in October that two of his sons have achieved the dream that eluded him.
“I’m very happy, very proud that they’ve been able to make it to the Major Leagues and get a taste of an experience I didn’t have, and would have liked to have,” he said. “I have every accolade, but I can’t compare myself with anyone who has played in the Majors.”
Like father, like sons
The Gurriels, who hail from the province of Sancti Spiritus in central Cuba, are the first family of Cuban baseball. Lourdes Sr.’s brother, uncle and cousin also played in the Serie Nacional.
During his playing days, Lourdes Sr. would take his sons to practice to expose them to the game.
“He would ask me, ‘Do you want to play baseball?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, Dad, yes; I want to be like you,'” recalled Yuli, an infielder who carries a .291 average with 34 home runs and 175 RBIs in 311 games with the Astros. “He’d say, ‘Well, if you decide to play baseball, you have to love the sport from the beginning and play it like it’s the last day of your career.’
Lourdes Sr. admits to worrying that his sons would ultimately choose other paths. Nonetheless, coercion was never intended — nor necessary.
“When we started [playing], a lot of people thought it was because our dad was forcing us, that we had to be ballplayers because he was a ballplayer, but it wasn’t like that,” said Lourdes Jr., 25, by phone from Miami. “It came to us naturally. It’s true that we started watching baseball from the time we were very little, my brothers and especially me, because as far back as I can remember, my brothers were already playing.
“I watched too much baseball. I loved it. There were times when my dad and my brothers would get annoyed because they would take me to the games and I didn’t like to watch baseball because what I wanted to do was play it.”
Lourdes Gurriel’s sons didn’t just embrace baseball, they became pretty darn good at it.
The eldest, Yunieski, played 16 seasons in the Serie Nacional as an outfielder. Thanks to an agreement between the Cuban government and Canada’s independent Can-Am League, he played two seasons with the Quebec Capitales.
Yuli became the face of Cuban baseball, widely regarded as the island’s top player. Playing mostly third base, he slashed .337/.421/.582 across 15 seasons in the Serie Nacional. Like his dad, he was a fixture on the national team, helping his country win gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and appearing in the first three WBCs. With the blessing of the Cuban government, Yuli also played for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.
An infielder, Lourdes Jr., known as “Yunito,” made his debut in the Serie Nacional at the age of 16 and hit .277 in 305 games over six seasons.
For years, Major League teams coveted Yuli. But while the Gurriel brothers did not deny their desire to play in the big leagues, they maintained that they wanted to do so legally. By February 2016, however, their patience had run out. After the Caribbean Series in Santo Domingo, Yuli and Lourdes Jr. snuck out of the Cuban team’s hotel, bound for Haiti, where they established residency and began the process of becoming MLB free agents. Their departure was a blow to Cuba’s severely depleted baseball rosters.
Yuli landed a five-year, $47.5 million contract with Houston in July 2016 and was in the big leagues by August. A year later, he added a World Series ring to his resume.
Lourdes Jr. signed with Toronto for seven years and $22 million prior to the 2017 season and made his Major League debut last April. In 65 big league games in 2018, he hit .281 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs.
Leaving their close-knit family behind, says Lourdes Jr., was gut-wrenching. The entire Gurriel clan has since reunited in Miami.
“We decided at the time that that was the best option,” he said. “No one, not even my dad, had anything to do with that. It was a choice we made. Everything worked out well, thank God.”
Despite not being involved in his sons’ decision to defect, Lourdes Sr. was supportive.
“God gave me a gift by allowing them to become ballplayers,” he said. “And to see them playing in the Major Leagues, that’s something I never dreamed of.”
Entering the Gurriel home in Houston involves walking on a doormat that reads “The Pineapple Family.” In an open kitchen and dining area, more pineapple motifs — printed on a kitchen towel, in the form of ceramic accents — evoke the flashy hairstyle that has become Yuli and Lourdes Jr.’s trademark.
The Gurriel brothers have style. The Man of the Big Moments is far more interested in their substance. For Lourdes Sr., it’s not enough that his sons made it to the Majors. He wants them to excel, which is why he describes being the father of two big leaguers as “a wonderful experience, but also an agony.”
“Having played baseball, you always want them to give their all and it’s really tough,” he said. “But you have to set the bar high so that they’ll do a good job.”
Lourdes Sr., who managed his three sons in the Serie Nacional, watches all of Yuli and Lourdes Jr.’s games. When they play at the same time, he turns on the Astros game on one screen and the Blue Jays game on a second. If he has access to only one screen, he follows one of the games on his phone. One way or another, he’s always paying attention.
“I can’t miss a single detail,” he said.
He was watching from Miami on Sept. 21, when Yuli and Lourdes Jr. became the first set of brothers in MLB history to have multi-homer games on the same day.
“That was a very difficult thing they did,” said Lourdes Sr. “That was really exciting for all of us, because it was all over the place.”
Whether they are coming off a good game or a bad game, ballplayers talk about turning the page quickly. Yuli and Lourdes Jr. can’t move on until breaking down every game with their dad. Lourdes Sr. waits 45 minutes to an hour after the last out before calling his sons to dissect their performances.
“We discuss the game — everything they did right, everything they did wrong — to fix flaws,” he said.
“How they were pitched to, how they went after pitches. I do that with them every day.”
His sons aren’t quick to answer their phones after bad games, he noted.
“We take a few minutes because we know we’re about to get a full recap,” Lourdes Jr. said, laughing. “I go, ‘Ughhh,’ but once we’ve settled down, we go, ‘OK, let’s get what we deserve.'”
“It’s every day,” said Yuli about the postgame chats with his dad. “He’s religious about it. He’s very observant. When he played, he was a really smart player. He’s helped me a lot. After every game, he tells me what I did wrong and what I can do to improve. It’s almost like a ritual. I can’t do without it.”
Lourdes Sr. has been a devoted coach to his sons since they were kids. In Cuba, where training resources are limited, he resorted to unconventional methods, like having the boys practice their inside swing in front of a mirror, placed just beyond the proper bat trajectory.
“If they did it wrong, they’d break the mirror,” Lourdes Sr. quipped.
During the offseason, the Gurriel brothers train in Miami, under the tutelage of their father and eldest brother. While they can now take advantage of all the technology available to a modern ballplayer, their most important source of feedback remains the same.
“My dad’s tips practically never end,” said Lourdes Jr. “It’s really thanks to that that we are here.”
Nathalie Alonso is part of the editorial team of LasMayores.com, the official MLB page in Spanish. Follow her on Twitter @NathalieMLB.