Cuban star Gourriel has no interest in deserting
At 22 and already with an impressive résumé in local and international events. Cuban infielder Yulieski Gourriel is considered one of the world's best baseball players.
And as with other Cuban greats since Fidel Castro outlawed professional sports 40 years ago, Gourriel's success has been accompanied by rumors of desertion when his country participates in international events.
The Central American and Caribbean Games, which concluded Sunday in Colombia, were no exception.
There were several reports coming from Colombia and elsewhere that Gourriel, who homered in Cuba's championship victory over the Dominican Republic, had left the Cuban team and asked for political asylum in the U.S. to play professional ball. One Colombian newspaper even reported that Gourriel had reached a preliminary agreement with the New York Yankees.
"I laughed when I saw those reports, because I was home as soon as we finished playing," Gourriel told ESPNdeportes.com via telephone from his home in Sancti Spiritus in southeast Cuba.
Since he joined the national team in 2003, Gourriel has been on the radar screen of scouts, and the subject of rumors that always surround the Cuban team.
"I'm only interested in playing ball, that's what I concentrate on," said Gourriel. "If I paid attention to all the other things, I wouldn't play as well that's what I'm here for, to play for my country."
Since Gourriel has been on the national team, Cuba has won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 in Athens, in addition to gold in the 2003 Pan American Games, the 2006 Central American and Caribbean Games, and the 2003 and 2005 World Championships.
In March, Cuba finished second in the World Baseball Classic, the first international event that included established major-league players. Cuba defeated teams with some of the best players in the world, including the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, before losing the championship game to Japan.
"My goal is to win every tournament in which Cuba plays, especially the 2008 Olympics and the World Classic in 2009," said Gourriel, who hit .273 with two home runs and six RBI in the WBC.
Why is Gourriel so highly sought? The guy can hit.
In the last Cuban League regular season, Gourriel led the league in home runs (27) and RBI (92) in a 90-game season playing for Sancti Spiritus. He also had 19 doubles, 11 triples, 21 stolen bases and 51 walks in 349 plate appearances. The previous season, he hit 23 home runs and drove in 83.
With his bat and a solid glove at both third and second base, Gourriel would command millions as a professional in the U.S.
"My commitment is to my family, which has guided me since I was little, and the revolution, which has guaranteed me everything I've needed to become a ballplayer," he said. "That's all I need as a person. I have definite convictions."
Gourriel just wants to be mentioned in the same breath as other Cuban greats on the island, such as Omar Linares, Antonio Pacheco and Oreste Kindelan.
"I want people to recognize me as one of the best Cuban players of all time, although that won't be easy, with all of the great players we've had here," he said.
Enrique Rojas is a reporter and columnist for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN.com.
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