January 21, 2018

With One Gesture, Yuli Gurriel Upends His Impressive Season

With One Gesture, Yuli Gurriel Upends His Impressive Season

After Game 3, though, the Astros faced the possibility of not having Gurriel, at least for a game, after cameras caught him making a racially insensitive gesture in the dugout after his homer off Yu Darvish. Gurriel touched his fingers to the edges of his eyes, stretching the skin and mocking the appearance of Darvish, who is from Japan.

Major League Baseball plans to interview Gurriel and will consider disciplining him for the gesture. Two players, Oakland’s Matt Joyce and Toronto’s Kevin Pillar, were suspended for two games this season for using an anti-gay slur on the field, and Yunel Escobar, then of Toronto, was suspended for three games in 2012 for wearing eye black inscribed with a similar slur.

Gurriel said the furor over his gesture surprised him, and he mentioned that he had played in Japan – for the Yokohama BayStars, in 2014 — and respected Japanese people.

“I did not want to offend anybody,” he said through an interpreter. “I was commenting that I did not have any good luck against Japanese pitchers in the United States.”

Gurriel had been 1 for 7 against Darvish with the Astros, and his homer led off a second-inning onslaught of hard hits and loud outs. The Astros chased Darvish after just one and two-thirds innings, the shortest outing of Darvish’s major league career and his only game without a strikeout.

Asked about Gurriel’s gesture, Darvish said he was angry and found it disrespectful. He also said everybody makes mistakes and that he hoped people could learn from Gurriel’s.

Gurriel has had much to learn since defecting, which he did at a later age than most Cuban players. He comes from a prominent baseball family in Cuba; his uncle, great-uncle and cousin starred there, and his father, Lourdes Sr., starred for the national team for 15 years and later managed it. His brother, Lourdes Jr., is a prospect with the Blue Jays.

Speaking in Spanish before a workout at Dodger Stadium on Monday, Gurriel said that people often wondered why he did not leave Cuba sooner. As solid as he was this season, batting .299 with 18 homers, 75 runs batted in and 43 doubles, he is probably past his prime. He hit .335 with a .997 on-base plus slugging percentage across 15 pro seasons — starting at age 17 — before joining the Astros organization.

“That’s the question people ask me the most: ‘Why did you arrive so late? Why did you decide so late?’ ” he said. “Maybe I did. Inevitably, age just isn’t the same and I could have left at 22 or something like other players and spent their entire careers here and maybe that would have been better. But no, I don’t regret it. I had the chance to play my entire life in Cuba and enjoy those great moments, and the chance to play in Japan. God wanted me to be here in this moment now, and I’m enjoying this.”

His Astros teammates have marveled at Gurriel’s skills — “He’s always had what I call the hit gene,” center fielder George Springer said — while understanding that his transition to the United States, while smooth on the field, also has its challenges.

“It’s a process,” Altuve said. “I did it when I came from Venezuela, but I was way younger than him. The food, the people, the language, that’s kind of tough for us, but I think this organization helped me a lot to be part of this culture. Now I can say I speak O.K. English, I can communicate, I like the food, I have all my friends here from America. Sometimes I tell them to eat Venezuelan food. So we’re like brothers. This is a team that has a lot of chemistry.”

The Astros have such a deep offense that their leader in runs batted in, Marwin Gonzalez, batted eighth in Game 3. That suits Gurriel, who said he felt pressure to carry his Cuban teams but does not have the same feeling here.

“In Cuba, if I didn’t hit, I lost,” he said. “If I did hit, it was normal and what I was supposed to do. So it was really hard to please people. It’s been different here in this lineup.”

At the same group interview in which he made those comments, Gurriel was asked a question by a Japanese reporter. He answered with a few words in Japanese before continuing in Spanish.

“I identified a lot with the Japanese public,” Gurriel said. “It was a really great experience.”

Yet with one gesture in Game 3, Gurriel turned what should have been an experience to celebrate into something much different.

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