WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Here it comes. Yuli Gurriel can see it just up ahead in the distance. Opening Day—and beyond—without him. More noise. More swirling emotions.
Maybe one day he can permanently slip past what happened in Game 3 of the World Series last October, when he directed an offensive gesture at pitcher Yu Darvish following a home run and appeared to mouth "chinito," a word used in some Spanish-speaking countries to refer to all people of Asian descent.
But on this warm, sunny afternoon here in Houston's camp, amid the usual spring optimism, he knows that day is not yet close enough to comfort him.
"It's tough to prepare, knowing you're not going to be able to start the year, knowing that you're going to miss the first five games," Gurriel says through a translator during a quiet clubhouse conversation with B/R.
Following Houston's historical World Series victory last fall, the Astros scattered across the United States as champions.
Gurriel went home to Miami a villain.
He was suspended for the first five games of the 2018 season and ordered by Commissioner Rob Manfred to undergo sensitivity training. Spring surgery to remove the hook of his hamate bone is expected to keep him on the Disabled List until mid-April, so now he will serve those five games when he is activated from the DL.
All winter, the part of him that knew he was a champion waged an emotional battle with the part of him that knew—or, more accurately, learned—that he had screwed up, big time.
"It would creep up, and I would think about it often," Gurriel says. "Coming from winning the World Series, it was great, but [the gesture] wasn't me and didn't reflect who I was.
"I felt terrible. Even the messages I would receive on social media, it made me really sad."
The messages, he says, "were very aggressive."
It is behavior that Gurriel must pay for—probably for a very long time. And, because he is their teammate, the Astros will feel the reverberating aftershocks as well.
"I love him to death," says outfielder George Springer, the World Series MVP. "Everybody in here does. He made a mistake. We can admit that. It's not who he is.
"But his apology was sincere, and I hope people can move past it."
Gurriel and those who know him best say that his apology came from the heart, a heart that the Astros swear is good and pure. To a man, he is one of their very favorite teammates. He shows up at the park with a permanent smile. He makes them laugh. He helps them win.
That it was Gurriel at the center of this incident speaks more to the clumsy way in which cultures sometimes bumpily blend together than it does to anything evil. What it mostly indicates is that the learning curve is still steep for all of us, and that sometimes understanding is far more helpful than, say, social media toxicity.
Gurriel, 33, was raised in Cuba, played professionally in Japan in 2014 and signed with the Astros as an international free agent in July 2016. It was the MLB international feed that picked up his Game 3 gesture in the dugout in the moments following his homer against Darvish, and it went viral before the game ended. Gurriel was stunned at how quickly he was embroiled in this raging inferno.
"I was super surprised," he says. "Not only in Japanese culture is it not a big thing, but in the Cuban culture it's even less. When I found out the magnitude of how my words were portrayed, it felt terrible and obviously it was not my intent."
Gurriel's brother, Lourdes, an infielder in the Toronto Blue Jays system, was playing in the Arizona Fall League when Yuli suddenly joined the ranks of America's Most Wanted.
"Some friends told me what happened, and then the Blue Jays called to make sure if I had any calls I knew how to deal with them," Lourdes, who lived with his brother in Miami this winter, says. "To be honest, I didn't take it as anything that big. Then we found out later, it was a big deal."
While Yuli was portrayed as a racist and worse across many segments of society, the Astros—though disapproving of what Gurriel did—mostly understood the confusion.
"It's only in America," Springer says of the disapproval. "He comes from a much different culture, and if you grow up with that [not being considered offensive], it's hard to understand that you shouldn't do it. Especially in your first year in a new country.
"He wouldn't hurt a fly, physically or verbally. I love the guy. We all do."
Those words echo throughout the Astros clubhouse.
"If ever there was a good time for the offseason, that was it," says reliever Tony Sipp. "And winning the World Series put a brighter spin on the offseason.
"Knowing how good of a guy he is, it's unfortunate we even have to come to the rescue of his character. Looking at it, it looks bad. But he's genuinely a good guy. He likes to have fun. He never struck me as a guy who would denigrate anyone's race.
"I've never had any problem with him."
During his eight-hour sensitivity training course in January, Gurriel says, he and his classmates discussed racism and how it manifests itself. He calls it "a good experience for me overall as a man."
At home in Miami this winter, not more than a few days would go by, it seemed, before someone else would bring up the incident in some form or another.
"The Cuban American population is big there, and a lot of people reached out to me and said they were shocked to see how big of a deal it was," Gurriel says.
"But I told them, 'No, things are different. It's not like it is in Cuban culture everywhere. It's a different country, with a different set of standards, and you have to respect that.'"
He has had no contact with Darvish since he apologized in the immediate aftermath of Game 3 last October, he says. He still appreciated the way the pitcher gracefully handled it.
He did, however, hear this winter from several Japanese teammates who were on his team in 2014.
"Some of the guys reached out and reassured me about my character and the kind of guy I am," Gurriel says. "They told me personally that they weren't offended, and that made me feel a little better."
From here, the Astros are hoping to take it the rest of the way in making him feel better as he prepares this spring for a season that he knows will begin late for him. Gurriel's bat is important to them. He finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting last year after hitting .299 with 43 doubles, 18 homers and 75 RBI, and since his debut in 2016, his 10.6 strikeout rate is the fifth lowest in the game (minimum 700 plate appearances). Also, his glove: Manager A.J. Hinch plans to use him at all four infield positions at times this summer, rather than keeping him at first base, to allow the club more flexibility.
But making sure he's happy and cared for is equally important to them.
Dallas Keuchel, along with the club's co-ace Justin Verlander, jokes that the team won't mind missing Gurriel for the first five games and quips, "I'm going to take over first base and be an MVP candidate."
"Yuli is one of the best teammates anyone could ever ask for," third baseman Alex Bregman adds. "He is a great guy. A family guy. He is the nicest guy in the world."
No, Gurriel is not ducking the issue this spring, instead preferring to face what he knows he must face. Same with his teammates.
"If it takes just a couple of minutes of answering questions, I don't think he minds it," Sipp says. "And we as teammates sure don't mind it.
"It was a poor decision, but I hope it's not a decision he has to live with for the rest of his career because it doesn't define who he is. Not at all."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.