Fantastic Voyage Three fellow refugees say the tale of Yankees ace Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez's escape from Cuba doesn't hold water

Nov. 30, 1998
Nov. 30, 1998

Table of Contents
Nov. 30, 1998

Faces In The Crowd

Fantastic Voyage Three fellow refugees say the tale of Yankees ace Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez's escape from Cuba doesn't hold water

Never mind the World Series ring he earned pitching for the New
York Yankees, the conspicuous consumption occasioned by his
four-year, $6.6 million contract or the appearance on Letterman
he taped earlier this month. The Americanization of Orlando (El
Duque) Hernandez, less than a year removed from an $8.75-a-month
job at a Havana psychiatric hospital, last week reached an
inevitable juncture. As the treatment for the El Duque movie was
being shopped furiously to major Hollywood studios and his
autobiography was being pitched to New York publishing houses,
Hernandez was named as the defendant in an $800,000 lawsuit. Now
all the guy needs to do is cut a rap album and make a guest
appearance at Wrestlemania and he'll be as quintessentially
American as his nicknamesake, John Wayne.

This is an article from the Nov. 30, 1998 issue

Demanding damages for breach of an oral agreement, Juan Carlos
Romero filed a civil suit against El Duque in Costa Rica, where
both men were granted asylum after their dramatic escape from
Cuba. Romero, who was part-owner and navigator of the boat that
transported Hernandez from the Cuban port of Caibarien to the
Bahamas, alleges in a written summary of his case that the
Yankees pitcher promised he would help Romero enter the United
States, support him and help him obtain "a well-remunerated
job." Now, as Hernandez indulges in the spoils of capitalism,
Romero and his pregnant wife, Geidi, eke out an existence in
Costa Rica while living in an abandoned warehouse they rent for
$80 a month. "I took him out of Cuba, and he should be grateful
to me for his entire life," says Romero, 31, who had served for
eight years in the Cuban military before defecting. "He promised
to take care of me, and I'm barely making enough for food, rent
and clothes."

Regardless of the lawsuit's merit, Romero's plight suggests that
the legend of El Duque has been embroidered in the retelling.
Amid the shroud of hagiography, the facts of El Duque's journey
from a shack in Havana to vaunted Yankee Stadium have become
increasingly elastic--so much so that even his teammates wonder
about the truth. "Who knows what the raft was like? Who knows how
treacherous the waters were?" Yankees pitcher David Cone recently
told the New York Daily News. "There's a mystery, something
intangible about El Duque."

As for what really happened on the voyage, Hernandez, for one,
isn't saying. Savvy opportunist that he has become, he implores
us to read about the details when his book comes out. Or, better
yet, wait for the movie, in which, according to Vanguard Films,
one of four production companies that have invested in the
project, he'll be portrayed by--who else?--Cuba Gooding Jr. In
recent interviews with SI, however, three of the other
passengers aboard the boat from Cuba--Romero, his wife and Leny
Rivero, who had no apparent connection to El Duque but bought
himself a spot on the boat--gave an account of the trip that
would debunk some of the myths that, like Jack's beanstalk, have
grown unchecked. Indeed, when asked how much of the publicized
version of the escape is true, Rivero told SI, "Poquito [little]."

According to the three parties interviewed, in the early morning
of Dec. 26 of last year, Hernandez and his common-law wife,
Noris Bosch; Alberto Hernandez (no relation), a catcher on the
Cuban national team; Osmani Lorenzo, a boyhood friend of El
Duque's; Joel Pedroso, a cousin of El Duque's; and Rivero piled
into Lorenzo's decades-old Chevy in Havana and, slowed by engine
troubles, drove five hours east on Cuba's northern coast to
Caibarien. There they were joined by Romero and Geidi, and they
all waded into waist-deep water to board a boat secured by
Romero, who, through inside information, also knew where the
Cuban coast guard would be positioned that day. An unidentified
ninth passenger who had piloted the boat to the waters off
Caibarien and had no intention of defecting, was already aboard.

While the vessel was a far cry from a Carnival cruise ship or
even a cigar boat, neither was it a leaky, rickety assemblage of
flotsam and jetsam, as it has often been described. A 20-foot
wooden fishing boat, the craft was equipped with a six-cylinder,
Russian-built engine that allowed it to clip along at speeds of
up to 20 knots. "It wasn't a raft," says Romero with a laugh.
"It was a good boat."

Further, the 35-mile trip from Cuba to Anguilla Cay, one of the
southwesternmost Bahamian islands, wasn't exactly an adventure
worthy of Robinson Crusoe. Newsweek, among other media outlets,
reported that "the boat started leaking almost immediately after
leaving shore. With constant bailing and rowing, it managed to
last 10 hours before sinking." But according to the three
passengers interviewed, never did the ship spring a leak during
its 10-hour voyage, nor did it sink or run aground. In addition,
contrary to a part of myth that could have been lifted straight
out of Gilligan's Island, the weather never started getting
rough; the tiny ship was never tossed. "It was perfect weather,"
says Juan Carlos Romero. "We sailed calmly, the sea was smooth."
As for the sharks that were reportedly drawn to the boat, Geidi
Romero says, "We never saw any sharks. The only fish we saw was
a marlin that jumped out of the water twice."

The original plan, according to Romero, his wife and Rivero--as
well as El Duque's uncle Osilio Cruz, who lives in Miami and
told SI he was involved in organizing the escape--was that
Romero's craft would be met at Anguilla Cay by a boat sent by
Jorge Ramis, a self-described businessman and friend of Cruz's
who also lives in Miami. As the Romeros and Rivero understood
it, the boat sent by Ramis (who could not be reached for
comment) would take the group to Miami. When the refugees
reached Anguilla Cay, however, that boat wasn't there (U.S.
Coast Guard records reveal that a 23-foot Monaco, which Cruz
told SI was the boat dispatched by Ramis, took on water and was
rescued five miles from Anguilla Cay the next day), so, just 10
yards from the island's shore, the group of eight disembarked.
The ninth passenger returned Romero's boat to Cuba so that
authorities there would not grow suspicious about its absence.

Because Ramis had assured the Cubans, through intermediaries,
that his boat would meet them, Romero had brought only two cans
of Spam, two bags of sugar and 10 gallons of water for the trip.
With these supplies quickly depleted, the group survived on the
uninhabited island for four days, subsisting on sea conchs that
they fished out of the shallows and roasted in old pans left by
previous defectors who had spent time there. (Contrary to media
reports, the group didn't eat seaweed, according to Romero and
his wife.) The stranded Cubans used a flash camera and waved a
stick with a rag tied to it to try to attract the attention of
planes overhead. Finally, they were spotted by a helicopter and
rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. The Coast Guard ship,
ironically, happened to be on its way to Havana to drop off
three repatriated Cubans, so El Duque's group was taken first to
the waters off the Cuban capital. There, petrified that they
would be spotted and forced to return to shore, they were
furtively transferred to another Coast Guard ship, which headed
north to Bimini.

If there was any adventure on the high seas, it occurred on this
return leg. The Coast Guard boat was buffeted by rain, wind and
massive waves, causing the passengers to surrender the contents
of their stomachs. Unable to negotiate a channel into the port
of Bimini because of the weather, the boat continued north and
finally docked at Freeport. From there the eight were taken to
the airport and flown to the Carmichael Road immigration
detention center in Nassau.

Within hours of El Duque's arrival at the complex, Joe Cubas,
the Miami sports agent who specializes in representing
Cuban-born baseball players and who had been tipped off that
Hernandez was being detained, showed up at the refugee center.
Though El Duque's half-brother Livan Hernandez, the Florida
Marlins pitcher, had had a bitter falling out with Cubas after
defecting to the U.S., in 1995, a partnership was born when
Cubas pressed $500 into El Duque's hands and flashed him a
smile. "Cubas was always talking about all the money El Duque
was going to make," says Romero. (According to Vanguard, Cubas,
a bearded man of Danny DeVito-like proportions, will be played
in the movie by Latin heartthrob Antonio Banderas.)

Presumably because of their status as ballplayers, El Duque and
Alberto Hernandez were offered humanitarian visas to the U.S.,
as was Bosch, but the other five members of the party were not.
Because, as he would say at a Miami press conference several
weeks later, his "morals did not permit me to leave the other
five passengers behind," El Duque refused the American visa.
Bosch, who accepted the offer and flew to Miami, told Gear
magazine, "I was pleading with him [to accept an American visa].
But he said no. For him, friendship is the most important thing.
When he has a friend, he will stay with them until death divides

Once Cubas arrived, however, El Duque also had another reason to
decline the American offer and seek asylum elsewhere. Under
Major League Baseball rules, a Cuban player who accepts asylum
in the U.S. is subject to the draft, while a Cuban player who
obtains residency in a third country is considered a free agent.
Having exploited this loophole on numerous occasions, Cubas laid
out the plan to El Duque in the Bahamas; El Duque told the rest
of the group. Using his connections, Cubas obtained Costa Rican
visas for El Duque and the six others and whisked them to
Central America in a Learjet.

Sure enough, within weeks a bevy of scouts had descended on
Costa Rica, and their teams engaged in a bidding war for El
Duque that the Yankees eventually won. His contract secured, El
Duque embarked on the good life and, to hear the Romeros tell
it, hasn't turned back since to check on the fate of his old
captain. "I want him to win, and I cheer for him to win," says
Geidi. "I just wish he had not left us behind while he got what
we all got into that boat for."

Since then, the marketing of El Duque has spun into high gear.
Cubas not only wasted little time peddling the movie and the
autobiography--"He obviously doesn't know the book business or
what this story is worth," says a top editor at one New York
publishing house that rejected the book, "because he was asking
for crazy money"--but also gave his client-cum-meal-ticket a
crash course in the niceties of capitalism. Early into the
season El Duque began coyly refusing to recount the story of his
escape, standing by silently while the breathless media engaged
in a Rashomon-like retelling of his tale. On those occasions
when he did speak of the voyage, he often contributed to the
myth. "If the sharks didn't frighten me when I was floating
around in the Caribbean," he told NBC during the ALCS,
displaying the same guile he would show on the mound, "the
Cleveland Indians won't frighten me either." Ain't that America.

Cubas did not respond to repeated calls from SI requesting an
interview with Hernandez. El Duque could rightfully point out,
however, that his renown as a ballplayer helped the group
quickly gain asylum in Costa Rica--other refugees have been
stuck in the Bahamian detention center for many months--and that
Cubas helped Romero and his wife in a number of ways after their
arrival in Costa Rica, such as putting them up in a hotel for a
couple of weeks and paying their first month's rent. In remarks
to The Miami Herald last February, Cubas, the son of Cuban
immigrants, addressed complaints from the Romeros and fellow
refugee Pedroso that El Duque and Cubas weren't doing enough to
help them. "You aren't owed anything," Cubas told the Herald.
"Those three have come here with such mistaken minds. My father
came here with nothing, eating crackers and cat food, and he
never asked for anything. You aren't owed anything here. You
must earn it. Let them drown."

Whatever the resolution of Hernandez's legal contretemps with
Romero, you won't be hearing about it if and when the
raft-to-riches movie comes out. "It's a very inspiring story of
a true hero," says John Williams, a producer for Vanguard, "but
the story of El Duque will be over when he meets Joe Cubas and
comes to the United States. That's when the movie ends."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOEL PETER JOHNSON [Painting of Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG FLIGHT TO FREEDOM In a 20-foot boat like the one below, Romero and his wife (opposite), El Duque and five other refugees: 1. left Cuba for Anguilla Cay to meet Ramis's boat (A), which took on water and never showed; 2. were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and ferried to waters off Havana, after four days stranded on Anguilla Cay; 3. took another Coast Guard ship to Bimini, where bad weather prevented docking; 4. proceeded to Freeport; 5. were flown to a detention camp in Nassau; 6. jetted to Costa Rica. [Map of Cuba, southern Florida, Bimini and Nassau with arrows depicting Orlando Hernandez's journey with detail drawing of boat]COLOR PHOTO: VICTOR BALDIZON [See caption above--Juan Carlos Romero and Geidi Romero]
"It was perfect weather," says Romero of the trip from Cuba
to Anguilla Cay. "We sailed calmly, the sea was smooth."