AP Photo/Franklin Reyes
Friday, June 13, 2014 | 10:46 p.m.
HAVANA — Yulieski Gourriel's cellphone rang again and again as he strode, family in tow, through Havana's international airport. Friends calling to wish him well, he said.
Travelers and airport workers approached to ask for autographs and have their picture taken with one of Cuba's biggest baseball stars as he readied for a transoceanic flight to join his new team: the DeNA BayStars of Yokohama, Japan.
"Good luck Yuli!" some fans cried.
Weeks after the springtime close of the domestic league, the first Cuban ballplayers are competing abroad under last year's historic reversal of a Marxist-inspired professional sports ban in place since 1961.
It's a tectonic shift for players like Gourriel, who signed a reported $980,000 contract with Yokohama for the next half-year. In Japan, he joined fellow Cuban Frederich Cepeda, who is reportedly hauling in $1.5 million with the Yomiuri Giants.
"I've been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. I want to know what Yulieski's ceiling is as a player," Gourriel said. "For me it's a dream come true to play professional baseball in Japan, the second-best (league) in the world after the United States."
For Cuban ballplayers, chasing the pro dream has long meant abandoning the national team at an overseas tournament and requesting asylum, or attempting a risky high-seas escape. Getting caught could mean a long suspension or even a ban from the sport.
Many tried regardless, lured by the chance to prove themselves at the sport's highest level and the promise of a fat-cat contract in the United States. Consider Yasiel Puig, who inked a seven-year, $42 million deal and debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013, or Jose Abreu, who signed for $68 million with the Chicago White Sox.
Gourriel's and Cepeda's salaries fall far short of those, and it's still unknown how much the taxman back home intends to take. But the contracts almost certainly vault them into Cuba's figurative 1 percent after years of making just a few dozen dollars a month plus bonuses.
"Yulieski and the other Cubans have representatives who are going to take care of the money side," said his father, Lourdes Gourriel. The windfall will be "a great help for the player and all his family."
The new rules let islanders play overseas as long as they fulfill their commitment to the domestic league and international competitions, so both Gourriel and Cepeda are scheduled to be back for Cuba's winter league in November.
Some Cuban baseball players have been allowed to compete abroad before, such as Omar Linares, who played in Japan in 2000. But that usually happened only at the close of a long career; Gourriel and Cepeda are blazing a trail as the first players active on Cuban rosters to go abroad for temporary stints, with the blessing of sports authorities in the Communist-run nation.
Arriving in Japan, Gourriel spent just a few days with a minor league team before being called up to the BayStars. In his first three games he hit .417 with a home run two RBIs. Cepeda has had a tougher time, batting just .182 through 21 games with the Giants.
Another Cuban star, Alfredo Despaigne, had a splash debut in Mexico this spring with the Campeche Pirates. He hit .346 with five HRs over 20 games before league authorities sent him packing after ruling he was registered with a fake Dominican passport under circumstances that remain murky.
The Cubans allowed to play abroad are a staple on state TV newscasts back home and government-run websites that post videos of their home runs. In stark contrast, the names of defecting players all but vanish from official media.
Knowing they're in the spotlight, "we have a great responsibility," Gourriel said. "The first objective is to play baseball, and do it well to open doors for the rest of the Cuban players."
Indeed, other players are eager to follow in their footsteps and return to the island they call home.
"A million in Cuba means a lot more than elsewhere," said Alexander Malleta, a slugger for the Havana team Industriales. "Because here you have everything — your family, your friends, your life."
"This is a reward for all those who have been faithful to the nation, those who have been struggling here practically without anything," Malleta added. He has yet to land a foreign contract but is already more content thanks to a recent pay hike for local ballplayers. "I'm going to feel more calm and stable and concentrate on doing my job because I know that my children — I have two — will not want for anything."
Rumors abound that Japanese clubs want to sign more Cubans, and the shortlist of who could be next includes stars like 18-year-old rookie-of-the-year pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez, or hard-hitting outfielders Yadiel Hernandez and Yasmani Tomas.
There's still no mechanism for Cubans to reach Major League Baseball without abandoning their homeland. Cuba's requirement that they pay taxes at home apparently conflicts with U.S. embargo rules barring most financial transactions with Havana. And MLB officials say Cubans must still establish permanent residency outside of the island to be eligible.
Lourdes Gourriel said he hopes that someday it will be as simple and commonplace for Cubans to play in the United States as it is for Dominicans, Venezuelans and people of other nationalities.
"The best baseball in the world is in the Major Leagues. All baseball players dream of testing themselves there," said the elder Gourriel, a retired outfielder who won Olympic gold with Cuba in 1992. "Yulieski would like to. I would have liked to in my time."