When Detroit's Willie Hernandez was growing up in Puerto Rico, he would cry at Christmas, but they weren't tears of joy. "I'd be holding a quarter to buy my mother a gift, and I'd see a kid riding a new bicycle," he says. "I would think of how poor my family was, and I'd cry. I started hating Christmas."
During the seven years he pitched mostly middle relief in the National League, Hernandez, 29, saw that new bicycle every time some starter or short reliever signed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract. But where the boy cried and hated, the man stayed hungry and waited. Now, Hernandez—with bullpen-mate Aurelio Lopez setting the table for him—is feasting on hitters and enjoying the spotlight himself.
He's not only playing like a leading MVP candidate, but he's also sounding like one. Last week Hernandez said he'd like to be traded if the Tigers don't improve his contract, which could pay him as much as $450,000 this season and has a year remaining at the same pay. "Now's the time for me to make my money," he said. "I do the job. I deserve the reward. If Detroit can't give me the money I want, they might as well trade me to a team that will. Heck, if I'm the MVP, I may be able to ask for the world."
Not many people realized it at the time, but the Tigers took the AL East by the tail on March 24, the day they acquired Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman from the Phillies in exchange for catcher John Wockenfuss and outfielder Glenn Wilson. Hernandez leads the majors with 67 appearances, and at week's end had 27 saves, a 2.01 ERA and an 8-2 record. He's the only pitcher in the league whose innings pitched (121) exceed his combined hits and walks allowed (114). Hernandez has changed the Tigers from a talented team that lost the close ones to a talented team that now steps on an opponent's neck once it gets ahead. Last year, without Hernandez, the Tigers lost 27 games in which they led in the seventh inning or later. This year, with Hernandez and a revitalized Lopez, who's 10-0, combining for 38 saves, Detroit has lost only five games in which it had the lead in the seventh inning or later. And that explains the Tigers' runaway 8½-game margin over second-place Toronto last Sunday.
If Hernandez continues his pace, the Detroit heist could compare with the preseason deals that sent Frank Robinson to Baltimore in 1966, Dick Allen to the White Sox in 1972 and Rollie Fingers to Milwaukee in 1981. All those players won the league MVP award with their new teams, and Hernandez is favored this year by more people than just Tiger manager Sparky Anderson, hardly an objective observer. "I call him in, give him the ball and shake his hand after he closes them down," says Anderson.
Hernandez arrived in Detroit with a 34-32 record, a 3.72 ERA and 27 saves for his seven seasons. He spent the first six with the Cubs, playing a supporting role for closers Bruce Sutter and Lee Smith. But last year in Philadelphia he was 9-4 while setting up Al Holland, and he didn't allow a hit in the four innings he pitched in the World Series.
More important, Hernandez added a screwball and a "cut" fastball to his repertoire in '83. The two pitches—direct opposites in speed and curvature—set up righthanded batters to be jammed (cut fastball) or pitched away (scroogie). Hernandez had always been tough on lefthanders, particularly when he dropped down from his normal three-quarter delivery to nearly sidearm, and the screwball only adds to a hitter's misery.
On the mound, Hernandez doesn't mess around. He stands there in full scowl, his mustache drooping, his cheek bulging with tobacco, his eyes baleful. "You think I look mean when I pitch?" he asks, the mustache now dancing atop the smile he frequently flashes off the field. "I guess it's because I'm hungry to take you [the batter] out. I'm hungry to make some money."
Born Guillermo Hernandez to a sugarcane factory worker and a housekeeper, he was the seventh of eight children. He learned baseball using a righthander's glove on the rutted fields of Aguada, a small town on the northwest coast of Puerto Rico. He says that even then he had to give way when the game was on the line: "I never got in tough situations because they always pinch-hit for me."
By the time he was 18, he was a budding star with the Aguadilla Tiburones. Six weeks after converting from outfielder to pitcher, he signed with the Phillies for a $25,000 bonus. In his first season, with Spartanburg of the Class A Western Carolina League, he says his fastball was clocked at 100 mph. (Today he can throw in the low 90s.) But by his own admission, "I didn't know how to pitch."
In 1976, he was drafted by the Cubs and brought to the big club the next year. Chicago needed relievers to help stem the home-run derbies at Wrigley, and Hernandez was thrown into the fray without having a chance to learn his craft. "Wrigley, you spit and it goes out of the park," says Hernandez.
In February of 1983, former Baltimore pitcher Mike Cuellar, a master of the scroogie, taught Hernandez how to throw the screwball in the Puerto Rican League. "I was hanging my changeup, and he told me the screwball was a better pitch," says Hernandez. "I watched and said, 'That's true.' " Then, in spring training with the Cubs, Hernandez learned how to deliver a cut fastball from Ferguson Jenkins. "All of a sudden, I could pitch inside," says Hernandez.
Still, Hernandez was loath to use the screwball until he was traded from Chicago to Philadelphia in May. "[Catcher] Bo Diaz loved that pitch, he just called it and called it," says Hernandez, the excitement of the discovery still fresh. "Oh, I was taking out a lot of guys with that pitch. It was unbelievable." Six of those takeouts came when Hernandez tied the National League consecutive strikeout record, against the Mets.
Hernandez has been so good this year that he has overshadowed Lopez, who was the Tigers' main short-relief man last year. "Everyone in baseball is fallible," Lopez says. "The trouble is, Willie has been infallible. That's scary."