Omar Linares was a legend, in the true sense of that word.
To baseball fans who weren’t lucky enough to see him play for the Cuban national team, Linares was a player whose greatness was discovered second-hand. The youngest player to play in Cuba’s Serie Nacional (the island nation’s top-level league), he was 15 in 1985 when he led the league with 65 RBIs, the largest total in 15 years. The next year—when he was 16—he led the league in intentional walks.
Linares was the greatest player fans never saw, and stories of how good he was were hard for American fans to believe. He played until 2001 for Cuba’s national teams, winning Olympic gold medals in 1992 and ’96, and going out with gold in the ’01 World Cup in Taiwan.
That proved to be the swan song for many stalwarts of Cuba’s national teams. In July 2001, Cuba also won the Junior Pan Am Games with a team that included an infielder named Yuliesky Gourriel, 17, and current Angels prospect Kendry Morales.
Cuba won gold in the 18-and-under tournament as Gourriel batted .433 and made the all-tournament team. Morales, considered Cuba’s top young player, homered and went the distance on the mound to earn the tournament’s MVP award.
Most assumed Morales would inherit Linares’ mantle as the top hitter for Cuba, and the next year, Cuba graduated young players such as Gourriel, Morales and Frederich Cepeda to Cuba’s senior national team. The new-look team won gold in the 2003 World Cup in Cuba to pass its first real test. Morales hit just .265 but cemented his place in Cuba’s hierarchy with a game-winning home run against Brazil (driving in Gourriel, who started the rally with a triple) to avert a huge upset.
Morales could have been the heir to Linares’ throne, it appeared, with Gourriel pushing him for the honor of best player in Cuba. Instead, he defected and signed a lucrative contract with the Angels, guaranteeing him $6 million.
It left Gourriel behind as the Cuban national team’s top hitter, the player left to try to live up Linares’ legacy and to maintain the pride Cuba’s baseball team brings to the isolated Communist nation. That pride is on the line like never before at the World Baseball Classic, as Cuba’s “amateurs” face international major leaguers, and it’s up to Gourriel more than any Cuban player to help maintain his country’s unmatched track record.
Scouts who have seen Gourriel say he’s up to it.
“That kid is something special,” said John Kazanas, an area scout for the White Sox who saw Gourriel in the 2004 Olympics, when Kazanas was the Greek team’s coach. “He’s got such quick wrists, it’s like a knife through butter, and there’s no butter on the knife.
“There were a lot of good players in Athens. I wrote him up as my No. 1, and he was 20 years old on top of it.”
BEST OF THE REST
Gourriel heads our Top 5 list of the best players you never heard of who will be in the Classic. Here’s the rest of the field, in alphabetical order
Lee Seung Yeop, 1b, Korea
Lee made big news in the Korean Baseball Organization in 2003, when he hit 56 home runs for the Samsung Lions. That set a new (so-called) Asian record, breaking the mark of 55 set in Japan by Sadaharu Oh in 1964 and tied by Tuffy Rhodes in 2001 and Alex Cabrera in 2002. That feat, together with his 144 RBIs and .301 batting average, set Lee’s sights on playing baseball at a higher level, and he thought about making a move to the United States. Instead, he signed with Japan’s Chiba Lotte Marines in 2004 but struggled and found Japanese baseball more difficult than he had anticipated as he hit just .240-14-50 in 100 games. But in 2005, the first baseman/outfielder/DH came through with a .260-30-82 season for the Japan Series champion Marines. During the off-season, he refused Lotte’™s contract offer and signed with the Yomiuri Giants.
Pedro Luis Lazo, rhp, Cuba
Lazo has earned comparisons to Lee Smith for everything from his size and complexion to his high-90s fastball velocity and slow gait from the bullpen. He made his international debut in 1991 (at age 18, if his official birth date is correct) in the World Junior Championships. While he was passed over for Cuba’s ’92 Olympic team, he was a member of the ’96 and 2004 gold-medal winners. He also took the loss in the 2000 gold-medal game, giving up a solo home run to Team USA’s Mike Neill in the first inning while Ben Sheets shut out Cuba. Lazo changes speed on his fastball—in the ’05 World Cup, a scout said he saw Lazo strike out a batter with three fastballs at 86, 89 and 95 mph—and complements it with a hard, mid-80s slider. The biggest difference between Lazo and Smith: Lazo usually is a starter during Serie Nacional for Pinar Del Rio, so if Cuba needs him for more than an inning, Lazo can deliver. He tossed 5 2/3 innings against Team USA in the World Cup quarterfinals last fall.
Nobuhiko Matsunaka, 1b, Japan
Matsunaka is a burly first baseman/DH and run-producing machine for Japan’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. He is currently the most consistent slugger and clutch hitter in Japan’s Pacific League, having won the Triple Crown in 2004 when he hit .358-44-120. That followed a .324-30-123 season in 2003. He also led both Japanese leagues in homers in 2005 when he hit .315-46-121. His home run totals are all the more impressive when you consider his home stadium, Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome, is the largest in the country. Matsunaka was the league MVP in 2000 and in 2004. Matsunaka is expected to bat cleanup and serve as DH for the Japan team in the Classic.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, rhp, Japan
A scout once dubbed him the Elvis of Japan for his popularity, and Matsuzaka has been a star in his homeland since an epic performance in Japan’s national high school tournament, in which he had one 250-pitch outing and threw a no-hitter in the tournament championship. The Seibu Lions made him the first pick in Japan’s 1998 draft, and he went 16-5, 2.60 only one year later. His heavy workload (including a 240-inning season in 2001) caught up to him, as injuries limited him to an average of 138 innings from 2002-2004. His 2005 season was his best, however, with a career-low 2.30 ERA and a league-leading 226 strikeouts in 215 innings. He went just 14-13, though, for a 67-69 Seibu team. Matsuzaka, who throws four pitches for strikes and maintains a low-90s fastball deep into games, has pitched for Japan’s last two Olympic teams, striking out 45 in 43 innings, but lost both the bronze-medal game in 2000 to Korea (3-1) and the 2004 semifinal against Australia (1-0).
Ask scouts about Gourriel, and they will talk about his tools as if he were a first-round pick. If Gourriel were American, he would be a college junior now and certainly a first-rounder.
The only dispute is over which position he should play. On the national team, he has played second and third base, and for his Sancti Spiritus team in Serie Nacional, Gourriel has been shifted more to third, though he has filled in at shortstop. His work around the bag at second on double plays, according to Cuba observers, led to his move to third.
“For me, he’s a No. 1 guy, and he’s a power hitter who fits the third base profile,” said a scout with extensive international experience. “I think he’s a championship-caliber third baseman in the big leagues. He doesn’t have a weakness.
“I had him with a 55 arm, and it seems like he has more if he needs it, and I put him as a 55 defender, though I think he could be a 60. But he’s an offensive player.”
Gourriel has a long, sinewy-strong body, comparable to a young Chipper Jones or Ernie Banks, and he produces tremendous power with quick wrists, strong hands and an unconventional approach at the plate that nevertheless allows him to generate terrific bat speed. His power helped Cuba dominate the 2005 World Cup in the Netherlands, as he led the tournament with eight home runs, including a long blast off the Devil Rays’ Jason Phillips in an 11-3 rout of Team USA.
In his last three major international tournaments’"the 2003 and 2005 World Cups and the ’04 Olympics’"Gourriel progressively has become more dangerous, and more confident. He had one extra-base hit and four RBIs in 2003; last September, he had 19 RBIs in just nine games. Combined in those tournaments, Gourriel is hitting .342-11-36 over 29 games.
“He plays with a real air of confidence now,” one scout said. “There’™s just no question he’s great now, and would be a great player in the States.”
Another scout put it more bluntly: “After I saw him, I tried to convince my organization that it’s worth it to try and do what we can to get this guy out of Cuba. This guy has a chance to be a big league shortstop or third baseman and be an impact player for 10 years.”
No Place Like Home
However, defecting isn’t likely for Gourriel, whose profile is more like that of Linares than Morales. His manager at Sancti Spiritus is Lourdes Gourriel, his father, who was an impressive player in his own right. A former stalwart of national teams in the ’70s and early ’80s, Lourdes Gourriel spent 20 seasons in Serie Nacional, hitting .323 with 247 home runs (Cuba used metal bats and played 90-game seasons in the elder Gourriel’s time).
He also plays on the Sancti Spiritus team with his brother Yuniesky, an outfielder and significantly lesser player. These family factors, according to sources familiar with baseball in Cuba, make it unlikely Gourriel would defect, as defecting would preclude any return to communist Cuba.
“Gourriel is a player the fans talk about, and he’s very consistent, but he’™s not the dominating player that Linares was,” said Peter Bjarkman, who has written several books about international baseball and Cuba in particular. “The feeling you get when you watch him, though, is that he’s only going to get better. He’s not near what he’s going to be.”
In this way, Gourriel is not Linares, who was a dominant player instantly. Gourriel may be Cuba’s best, but it’s not by a wide margin. Frederich Cepeda is nearly his peer among younger players, a switch-hitter with pop and speed in center field. And 16-year-old Dayan Viciedo, the MVP of the world youth championships, was the youngest player on any Classic provisional roster.
But now, Gourriel can do something not even Linares got to do. He can become a real star, not just a legend, for fans in the U.S. and around the world, by leaving his mark on the inaugural World Baseball Classic.