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Ex-BayStars player Gourriel defects from Cuba

AP

Star Cuban infielder Yulieski Gourriel and his younger brother slipped away from their hotel in the Dominican Republic early Monday in an apparent effort to launch careers in Major League Baseball.

The departure of Yulieski ,a former Yokohama BayStars player, and his brother Lourdes was confirmed by Granma, the Communist Party newspaper in Cuba that serves as an outlet for official government statements.

The paper said on its website Monday morning that the Gourriel brothers had “abandoned” their hotel in “an open attitude of surrender to the merchants of professional baseball for profit.”

The elder Yulieski has been one of the Cuban players most highly praised by MLB scouts since he played in his first World Baseball Classic in 2006. His brother also is considered a good prospect.

His departure was a blow not just to the effort to keep talented players from fleeing overseas but to the sport overall on the island given his prominence, said Ismael Sene, a Cuban baseball historian.

“Nobody was expecting this,” Sene said. Since the start of the flight of Cuban players more than a decade ago, “there hasn’t been a departure that’s hit baseball as hard as this,” he said.

Cuban sports officials contacted Dominican police for help in locating the 31-year-old Yulieski and his younger brother, Lourdes, said a baseball official, who spoke to AP on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.

The brothers did not publicly disclose their plans and were in the Dominican Republic to play for the Ciego de Avila Tigers, who lost to a Mexican team Saturday in the Caribbean Series and were eliminated.

In the past, Cuban players have established residency in the Dominican Republic in order to become free agents and not be subject to Major League Baseball’s amateur draft.

Yulieski Gourriel’s departure from Cuba is a defeat for the country’s attempt to prevent flight of baseball talent by allowing players to sign professional contracts with leagues in third countries such as Mexico and Japan.

Gourriel was the most prominent example of the experiment that began in 2014, making $1 million playing for the BayStars, then returning to play a season with his pro team in Havana. After accounting for Japanese taxes, he paid 10 percent to Cuba’s baseball federation (which acted as his agent). The BayStars canceled his contract last spring after saying Gourriel had told them he was injured and needed to recuperate in Cuba.

Cuban and U.S. baseball officials are working to create a legal framework for Cuban residents to join the major leagues, but for the moment both Cuban law and U.S. law contain restrictions that make it impossible.

Cuban baseball experts say more than 200 adult players have left over the last two years, with many more junior players heading to other countries in hopes of an eventual major-league career.