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SI Vault: El Duque: Orlando Hernandez goes from Cuba to the Yankees

This SI Vault story from 1998 tells the tale of Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez's journey from Cuba to America and his early success as a pitcher for the New York Yankees.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 17, 1998 issue of Sports Illustrated.

New York has fallen hard for Orlando Hernandez, the most charismatic of the majors' new wave of international stars. 

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After six months on U.S. soil, Orlando Hernandez, the Cuban defector and New York Yankees pitcher, has an enthusiastic one-word reply when someone mentions lunch. "Hooters!" he shouts in perfect English, cackling. And so we get a postmodern Rockwellian tableau on West 56th Street in Manhattan that's practically American enough to get Hernandez his green card on the spot. Spread before him on the thickly varnished table are his cell phone, his beeper, his Marlboros, a quart of milk carried in from a nearby deli and a mountain of 20 well-greased chicken wings accompanied by a pile of mayonnaise packets for dipping. Jim Morrison is wailing Twentieth Century Fox on the loudspeakers, a baseball game plays on TV, and the lovely, dark-eyed, Colombian-born Angela--in orange shorts made from less fabric than Hernandez's wet-nap--provides attentive, bilingual service. America the beautiful, indeed.

How Hernandez got here is an amazing story. (No, not the one about his voyage on the least seaworthy vessel since the Minnow.) Earlier this morning Hernandez brought an entire Third Avenue coffee shop to a standstill just by showing up for his usual morning raisin Danish; then, to the delight of a photographer and gawking office workers from adjacent skyscrapers, he leaned back from an 18-inch-wide parapet 16 floors above Lexington Avenue to pose for a picture; then he walked two blocks, yapping into his cell phone while truck drivers yelled his nickname, El Duque, and pedestrians did the celebrity double take; finally, after nearly getting sideswiped by several taxis as he tried to hail one from the middle of Park Avenue, he got a hack to stop by coquettishly hiking up one of the legs of his shorts a la Claudette Colbert. As soon as he entered the cab, great buckets of rain fell. At the end of the 12-block ride, brilliant sunshine abruptly returned.

"Yes," he said through an interpreter, "I am a lucky man. I give thanks to God and all the saints. I must have been a good son and a good father."

Hernandez glows like Broadway, this man who smiles like a child, speaks like a poet and pitches like a magician. He projects a magnetism unmatched by any of the other players who have come before him in the unprecedented wave of international arrivals to major league baseball in the 1990s. Rene Arocha, Chan Ho Park, Hideo Nomo, Rey Ordonez, Hideki Irabu, Rolando Arrojo, even Hernandez's own half brother, the languid Livan Hernandez of the Florida Marlins--those and other foreigners were either too young, too uncomfortable or, let's be honest, too boring to open a window on what it meant to them to come to the U.S. They have been cheered, but have they been embraced?

El Duque, who was the Joe Jackson of Cuba, banned from baseball and living in a shack behind the house of his best friend, exudes personality, even on the mound, where he is to pitching what John Hancock was to penmanship. This has served to make him baseball's version of a Powerball winner. Joe Cubas, Hernandez's agent, is shopping movie and book deals for his client while fielding marketing opportunities with cap companies, card shows, car dealerships and anybody else who's fallen for this Yankee Doodle Dandy who loves hot dogs and won a game on the Fourth of July.

Hernandez has found a home in the land of plenty, otherwise known as the roster of the Yankees, who may turn out to be the winningest team of the century. As of Aug. 9 the Yanks would break the 1906 Chicago Cubs' record of 116 victories by winning 32 of their final 49 games--a pace that, for them, would qualify as a slump.

New York, a methodical, unspectacular offensive team whose signature weapon is the base on balls, likely will be remembered best for its polyglot pitching rotation. David Cone, David Wells, Andy Pettitte, Irabu and Hernandez are the American League's worst nightmare: They were 60-20 through Aug. 9 and had lost back-to-back starts only once since Hernandez joined the rotation on June 3. Throw in relievers Ramiro Mendoza and Mariano Rivera (Panama) and Graeme Lloyd (Australia), and Joe Torre is the Kofi Annan of managers, what with the range of multinational arms at his ready.

"We feel we can throw a stopper out there every game we play," says Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. Since beginning the season 0-3, New York was 21-5 as of Aug. 9 after losses; when coming off two straight defeats, the Yankees were 5-0, with five pitchers accounting for those five wins.

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Nine months after surgery to repair his right shoulder, Cone (16-4) has reestablished himself as an ace. "My professor," says Hernandez (7-3), whose arsenal of slingshot sliders and curves resembles Cone's cache.

"He's invigorated me," Cone says. "Just watching how creative he is on the mound has rubbed off on me, without question."

Meanwhile, through Aug. 9, Wells (14-2) led the Yankees (and the majors) in winning percentage, Pettitte (13-6) had pitched the most innings, Irabu (10-5) had held batters to the lowest average (.218). To opponents, one day it's hemlock, the next it's lye.

There was a time when the best real and imagined out-of-nowhere baseball tales came from hamlets in the American heartland. Now those stories come from an island country 200 miles southeast of Miami. El Duque is the Roy Hobbs of the 1990s.

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That brings us to the other story of how he got to Hooters, the one that Cubas and a production company began peddling to major film studios recently. "In Hollywood they call it the pitch," says Cubas, who could do stand-in duty for Danny DeVito. "We're lining up Cuba Gooding Jr. asOrlando Hernandez and Antonio Banderas as Joe Cubas." In Hollywood they call it the stretch.

The 20-foot sailboat on which Hernandez; his 21-year-old girlfriend, Noris Bosch; and six companions supposedly fled Cuba the morning after last Christmas sounds more like a colander with every retelling of the tale, a game of telephone in which Hernandez no longer participates. "He said he won't answer any questions about his trip," says Leo Astacio of the Yankees, who serves as Hernandez's translator. "He said he's saving it for the movie."

As the legend of El Duque has it, the refugees spent 10 hours at sea before landing on an uninhabited cay in the Bahamas. Until the U.S. Coast Guard found them three or four days later, they lived off shellfish and the little water, stale bread and Spam they had brought from Cuba. The U.S. offered them visas on humanitarian grounds. Bosch gladly accepted; she now lives in Miami. (Hernandez's ex-wife raises their two daughters in Havana with his financial help, according to Orlando.) Hernandez, under Cubas's well-practiced guidance, chose a Costa Rican visa instead, lest he be subject to the major league draft and the mercy of only one team; he received offers from several clubs, including the Mets, the Reds, the Mariners and the Tigers, before signing a four-year deal with the Yankees that pays him $6.6 million.

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"I remember changing planes in Miami after seeing him," says Yankees scout Lin Garrett of a Feb. 9 showcase in Costa Rica at which Hernandezworked out for representatives of about 20 teams. "A lot of [scouts] said they didn't like him. They said he didn't throw hard--he was 88 to 92 mph--they worried about his ability to get lefthanded hitters out, and they weren't sure how old he was. But there was more to this guy. He was taking ground balls at shortstop when a ball was hit foul into a parking lot, and he sprinted after it and ran back with it. Who does that? No, this was a special type of person. The radar gun wasn't going to tell you his story. That night I called up Mark Newman [New York's vice president of player development] and said, 'We've got to be in it. I don't care if he's 28 or 32 or whatever.'"

Orlando Hernandez

On his first day at spring training in Tampa, Hernandez, who insists he's 28, though some officials with other clubs believe that he could be as old as 32, sat in the clubhouse and stared with such intensity at the mundane props of big league life that the moment still lingers with Cone. "From the gloves and shoes piled up in the lockers, to the food spread, to the trainer's room," says Cone, "you could see he was amazed."

Says Hernandez, "That's true. But the next thought I had was of the national team players in Cuba. I started thinking, Why can't they have all that? They are also great players and great people. In Cuba they give you one pair of spikes. You take what they give you, and that's that."

The Yankees had figured El Duque might spend all year in Triple A. He had not pitched for 1 1/2 years after being banned in 1996 from the Cuban team, essentially as punishment for the 1995 defection of Livan. "I always believed I would pitch again someday," he says. "But I didn't think I would be in the big leagues this early. I dreamed this. But I'm not a fortune-teller. I also dreamed I would be president."

Hernandez earned his promotion by ripping through the minors with 74 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings. Major league righthanders, who were batting .144 against him as of Aug. 9, have no more of a chance against El Duque than does a bowl of wings. He has trouble with lefthanded hitters, which may relegate him to specialty relief in the postseason. The Anaheim Angels' lefthanded batters, for instance, ripped him on July 29 for nine hits in 13 at bats in the worst of his 12 starts, a 10-5 defeat. But he came back to throw a three-hitter against the Oakland A's five days later.

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Hernandez pitches with a balletic leg kick in which he jerks his knee chin-high, a move he learned at 18 to keep his left shoulder pointed toward his target. Before he was banned in Cuba, he says, his kick was even higher and his lethal slider even sharper. With that funky delivery and the way he changes the speed of his pitches and the angle of his arm upon releasing them, Hernandez is a master of deception. His greatest challenge will occur when the novelty wears off. Cleveland, the only team to face him twice, tagged him for nine hits and four runs in 6 2/3 innings the second time around.

"I could understand the questions people had about his age," says Omar Minaya, the New York Mets' assistant general manager who scouted El Duque. "I had my doubts after the layoff how quickly he would be an effective major league pitcher. But for anybody who questioned him then to still question him now, I'm sorry, I would seriously question that person's business in this game. El Duque's on a great team. But he could be a .500 pitcher and I'd still want him pitching in a big game. He's a warrior."

On July 22 against the Detroit Tigers, Hernandez balked home a run with one out in the third inning, narrowing the New York lead to 5-2.Hernandez blew up at umpire John Shulock and then at Yankees catcher Jorge Posada for intervening. To borrow one of El Duque's favorite English phrases, no problem. He composed himself, got two pop-ups to end the threat and shut out Detroit for three more innings before departing with a win in hand. "If the sharks didn't distract me," he says, alluding to the man-eaters he and his seven comrades are said to have encountered during their escape, "nothing that can happen on a baseball field will."

He's learning about American baseball customs, such as pitch counts and bullpens. "In Cuba, you pitch until you die," he says. "When you can't pitch with your arm, you go with your heart." The first time Torre came out to remove him from a game, Hernandez had no idea what was happening. "I had to pry his glove open and take the ball out myself," Torre says.

After the Yankees exhausted their bullpen in a 17-inning loss on July 20 in the first game of a home doubleheader against the Tigers, Hernandezbrought his spikes into the dugout before the second game and, in front of Torre, pointed to the bullpen, ready for volunteer work even though he was scheduled to start in two days. "I've never heard one complaint out of him," Torre says, "except about the traffic."

Hernandez has learned to take the subway from his midtown hotel to the Bronx, though not on the return trip. It was almost two o'clock in the morning after the Detroit doubleheader when he started for the subway station. Two police officers advised him against it. Hernandez insisted he was too tired to wait for a car service and kept walking. The policemen eventually put him in a squad car and gave him a lift home.

Otherwise, Hernandez negotiates life in New York splendidly, at ease among its large Spanish-speaking population. The crew at his favorite coffee shop stopped work recently to take a picture with him and offered him "anything you want, anything." Said Hernandez, "As long as you don't run out of raisin Danish, I'll be back." When one of those notorious Times Square electronics stores tried to charge him $85 for a leather case for his cell phone, Hernandez negotiated the price down to $21 plus a couple of Yankees tickets. "But you," he said, pointing to the most ruthless salesman, "are not going." He stops to chat at his dry cleaners even when he has nothing to drop off.

El Duque loves New York and New York loves El Duque, but his bitterness toward Cuba is obvious. He came here for la libertad, he says--"freedom to travel, freedom to speak one's mind without fear of retribution." He is especially jazzed about pitching on ESPN, because he knows Fidel Castro often tunes in, "and I hope he watches me and is pulling the hair out of his beard."

More than an hour after an afternoon game against the Chicago White Sox on July 25, when Yankee Stadium was bathed by the last faint streaks of daylight, Hernandez ran sprints in the outfield, alone in the historic ballpark, the huge place quiet except for the whir and click of sprinklers watering the field. Never was he more free.

"When I lay my head down at night," he says, "I always think about what I should do the next day. Once in a while I speak with my pillow. It always has good advice for me. The best place to turn to is the pillow."

Perhaps only Columbus enjoyed his new world so much. El Duque glows like a filament, his happiness illuminating every room he enters. He's a unique combination of incandescence and strength that is, given the way his life and pitching have turned out, symbolized by a single letter: W.