Peter Gammons: The Transitional Culture of Cuban Baseball Development

Kendrys Morales

It was well after 10 p.m., we were leaving a playoff game in Havana between Industriales and La Isla, and we were driving back to our hotel. Down one dimly-lit street there was a line a half-block long, and when we asked what could possibly be going on at that time of night, our guide, who worked for the ABC Havana Bureau, said, “loosely translated, you would call it a ‘snitch line.”

She further explained that people could get get extra food rations or stamps if they came into the government office and, “give information about neighbors, of people they know about.”

The time was not so long ago, 1999, ten days before the Baltimore Orioles would come to play the Cuban National team. Kendrys Morales and Yulieski Gourriel were 15, playing for a sports academy outside Havana (where Jose Fernandez would later attend and play), Jose Contreras was the national team’s best pitcher.

I brought it up this past week because of a conversation with a Dodger official because of their heavy off-season investment in Cuban players, as well as the fact that now that Yasiel Puig is 25 years old and entering his fourth year playing in the United States for the Dodgers, his career and its impact on the Dodgers is at a critical stage.

In no way was there even a hint of any problem with Don Mattingly’s handling of the meteoric outfielder. Mattingly was burdened with a fractioned roster and clubhouse, with personalities that reflected divergent career paths and baseball cultures that seemingly often did not connect. Puig could play like a superstar, sometimes he played as if he were riding the Tower of Terror at Disneyland. While tales of his escape to Mexico, his marketeers and his struggles with the cultural differences between Havana and Los Angeles swirled around him, there were moments of innocence, such as when he told Mattingly he’d like to be like Derek Jeter. Other times, not so. Health also has been an issue.

“I think the most important thing with the Cuban players is building a trust that goes both ways,” said the Dodger official. We have seen how Yunel Escobar’s career turned in Tampa when Joe Maddon established that trust, or how the career of Adeiny Hechavarria has blossomed in time. But we’ve never learned anything about Hector Olivera, because of injuries and, more important, the complications of traversing the straits between that dimly-lit street and the promised land, promises that most of the time cannot be kept.

“Donnie tried really hard, and maybe Yasiel wasn’t ready to trust the situation,” said the Dodger official. “Maybe it will take a new situation. Dave Roberts is an incredibly positive person. He has had what we hope have been productive meetings with Puig.”

Then there is George Lombard, Roberts’ prized addition to his coaching staff. The Dodger front office was blown away by Lombard, who is highly intelligent (his grandfather George Francis Fabyan Lombard was the dean of Harvard Business School), his mother Posy became a significant figure in the Civil Rights Movement after graduating from Smith, working closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King before tragically losing her life in an automobile accident on Cape Cod.

Lombard is married to a Cuban-American, knows that Miami community well, understands the Cuban culture. “I think the trust built in establishing a personal and professional relationship is hugely important,” says the Dodger official. “I do think the trust factor is something that can be difficult to build, with the Cuban players dealing with such a different culture, but many players trying to assimilate into our baseball culture from theirs.”

“With the huge numbers of Cuban players coming out, it’s vitally important,” says another Dodger official. “It seems as if there are a long list of new players to go see every week, and I don’t know if as an industry we have figured out how to make their cultural conversion less imposing and confusing.” Which is reason to question why the Red Sox, with Rusney Castillo and Yoan Moncada, passed on Lombard for Ruben Amaro for a similar coaching position.

When the Red Sox signed Jose Iglesias in September 30, 2009, they knew his transition would be less complicated than most. Iglesias was well-educated; his father was an army colonel, he had gone to good schools in a country that prides itself on having the highest literacy rate in the world, and had some taste of the basics of the English Language.

Most important, after attending Red Sox instructional league schools in the Dominican Republic and Fort Myers, Florida, Iglesias arrived at the major league team’s spring training in February and was immediately adopted by Dustin Pedroia. For most of spring training, Dustin and Kelly Pedroia had Iglesias to their house for cookouts two or three times a week. Pedroia kidded with and verbally sparred with the rookie shortstop; one morning when Iglesias got confused during cutoff drills, Pedroia pulled him aside, pointed to where he was supposed to be aligned, then shouted, “remember, you’re in Fort Myers, and when you’re in Fort Myers, I am Fidel Castro.

The whole team laughed with Iglesias. He trusted and leaned on Pedroia. He even sat down with me in late March and did a 20 minute interview for NESN, he so trusted his ability to express himself in his new language.

It doesn’t always work that easily. Rusney Castillo, despite having a university graduate degree in Cuba, has yet to find that comfort level, particularly with the New England media, despite the fact that he has worked on the language in the off-season in Miami and in Puerto Rico with Caguas manager and mentor Alex Cora.

What will be fascinating is to see how the Gouriel brothers adapt to the American baseball culture. Yulieski, who has recently played third base after playing second and short in his younger days, has been Cuba’s best professional player for a decade, and at 31 has now defected with 21-year old brother Lourdes are in the defecting process in the Dominican Republic.

Most every team has eyed Yulieski since he first played in the World Baseball Classic, but because both his parents were career government officials under Fidel Castro, he was thought to have decided not to defect to the United States, instead opting to play one season in Japan. “I think that because his parents have been so loyal to their country and he is reportedly a favorite of Castro that the brothers will be allowed to play in The States without impediment,” says one general manager. “It will be interesting, because while Yulieski is 31, he is considered to be highly intelligent and capable of an easier cultural conversion than most.”

Scouts who have watched the brothers in Europe, Korea and the Caribbean Series the last two years feel Yulieski’s skill set has come back. “The problem is going to be when is Yulieski cleared, and where is he going to find a job at his age where he can transition from the minors to the majors quickly. Lourdes is a different case. He makes contact, but he hasn’t shown that he has enough bat speed to create the kind of lift he needs to hit in the major leagues. He may take time to determine whether or not he can hit.”

The Dodgers could make sense. Andrew Friedman is a strong believer in depth, but right now the second base-shortstop depth either side of Corey Seager consists of Justin Turner, Howie Kendrick, Chase Utley, Enrique Hernandez, Micah Johnson and Austin Barnes. Is that too much? Would Boston take a chance on Yulkieski for first and third base? Miami? Never rule out A.J. Preller’s creativity in San Diego.

The Royals are not likely to bring in the older Gouriel and cut any of Mike Moustakas’s playing time, but when Yulieski and Kendrys Morales were 15, they were roommates and close friends at one of Cuba’s leading sports academies. Athletes from more than a dozen sports lived there. In the mornings, they attended classes. The food was excellent, although one of the masters conceded that the elite athletes sat in a separate dining area with the best food, and in the afternoons they trained in their individual sports.

In 1989, they used aluminum bats; they had two wooden bats, thick-handled Jackie Robinson and Nellie Fox models one coach told me were “pre-revolution.” At the time, Morales, 15, looked like he was going to be Carlos Beltran and grow into a Vladimir Guerrero body. He could really run, and his arm and throwing motion were picturesque; before he was 20, he was the switch-hitting center fielder for Industriales—the Yankees of Cuba—and one winter led the professional league in homers as a center fielder and saves as a pitcher. He and Yulieski were projected as the next generational stars, replacing Omar Linares, who steadfastly refused to defect despite staggering opportunities.

Now Morales and Gouriel—or Guriel as the brothers are now listed—may be playing in the major leagues in 2016.

And in L.A. they may have pitcher Yaisel Sierra working out of the Dodger bullpen by August, with Pablo Fernandez and Yadier Alvarez pitching in the development pipeline, Yusniel Diaz and Omar Estevez in the lower minors in the outfield and infield, respectively.

Friedman wants to build a developmental structure that flows players downstream every season, without dependence on the frenetic unpredictability and subsequent restrictions of the reliance on the free agent market. His Dodgers have clearly made the Cuban market—and players—a major part of their long range planning.

He understands that in the long view the success of that Cuban business model is the teaching involved in the complex cultural assimilation, teaching that, in this particular assimilation, begins with trust.

The managers, coaches, instructors, administrators and mentors on every floor of the development complex have to understand that Sierra, Alavarez, Diaz, et al, grew up in a society where the lines down the dimly-lit streets could be snitch lines, and that it is worthless to think that a young Cuban refugee doesn’t trust even baseball authority, but why.

Beginning with Yasiel Puig, who is the same age as Mark Appel, but with several pages on his big league application yet to be filled in. There are no snitch lines on the streets of Palo Alto.

Comments

  1. You must mean 1999 as Morales and Gurriel couldn’t possibly be 42!

  2. Jared Levine says:

    Nice read, It is always difficult to hear about the struggles that defectors have to go through to make it to the bigs, not to mention the majority of Cuban players that don’t reach that top Tier and get left behind or somewhere along the way. Hopefully as we get more Hispanic, and specifically Cuban managers and coaches throughout the Majors, and probably more importantly, the Minor leagues, the ease of transition will become a little more “humane”, for lack of a better word, in regards to Cuban ball players.

    • DanTheMANwham says:

      True, and as we start seeing more and more former players out of Cuba, we should start seeing more and more coaches in time…

  3. Great article!