El Duque

New York has fallen for Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernandez, the most charismatic of the majors' new wave of international stars
New York has fallen for Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernandez, the most charismatic of the majors' new wave of international stars
August 16, 1998

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."

AP Photo/Marta Lavandier

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.

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.

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. as Orlando 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.

"I remember changing planes in Miami after seeing him," says
Yankees scout Lin Garrett of a Feb. 9 showcase in Costa Rica at
which Hernandez worked 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.'"

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.

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.

AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

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, Hernandez brought 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.

YANKEES PITCHERS IN THE POSTSEASON

NAME GAMES WINS LOSSES SAVES ERA CHAMPIONSHIP RINGS

MIKE STANTON 25 1 1 1 0.64 0
JEFF NELSON 17 1 2 0 1.96 1
DAVID WELLS 15 4 1 0 2.63 1*
DAVID CONE 14 4 3 0 4.67 2*
MARIANO RIVERA 13 2 0 1 0.83 1
GRAEME LLOYD 10 1 0 0 0.00 1
ANDY PETTITTE 8 2 3 0 5.68 1
DARREN HOLMES 3 1 0 0 0.00 0
RAMIRO MENDOZA 2 1 1 0 2.45 0

TOTALS 107 17 11 2 3.26 7

*Won 1992 World Series with Toronto Blue Jays.

"If the sharks didn't distract me, nothing that can happen on a
baseball field will."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)