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Cuba's Lourdes Gourriel Jr. hopes to play in the major leagues — without defecting

Cuba's Lourdes Gourriel Jr. hopes to play in the major leagues — without defecting
Infielder Lourdes Gourriel Jr., Cuba's next potential superstar, could benefit from improved relations with the U.S. (Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Times)

In the last 26 months, three Cuban defectors have signed baseball contracts worth a combined $202 million. Yet, perhaps the best young player in a generation still is on the island.

Lourdes Gourriel Jr., a tall, rangy infielder, has been on the radar of some big league teams since 2010, when he played in the junior world championships as a 16-year-old. In the last season and a half, he has begun to blossom, hitting .314 with 16 home runs and 72 runs batted in over 97 games for Havana's Industriales.

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So at 22, he is following the negotiations between Major League Baseball and the Cuban federation with interest since it could make him the first Cuban in nearly 60 years to be able sign a big league contract while still on the island.

"Every player, this is the biggest dream you have," Gourriel said at Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano, his team's home park. "I don't think it's that far away."

The Gourriels are the first family of Cuban baseball. Lourdes Gourriel Sr. was an a most valuable player in Cuba, an Olympic champion and a two-time batting champion who played 15 years with the national team before becoming a manager. One older brother, Yunieski Gourriel, was a star center fielder in Cuba and the other, Yulieski, 31, is a two-time MVP in the island's Serie Nacional.

There's also an uncle, a cousin and a nephew who played in Cuba, and only one of the six failed to hit .300.

Given their talents, any one of them could have played in the majors. But to do that, they would have had to defect, leaving behind their family. The clock is now ticking on the youngest Gourriel, who also won't go to the U.S. if it means leaving Cuba behind.

But as he watched three former defectors, players once banned from the island, give a clinic to 180 youngsters, it was obvious the old rules were fading.

"It's really emotional. I never thought something like this would happen. It's a really big deal," he said. "A lot of things have to happen but I hope to somebody be a part of something like this, coming back to Cuba [a big leaguer]."

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