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El Duque's Excellent Adventure

How Cuba's ace pitcher escaped political oppression to become part of a great American success story.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

(continued from page 1)

While language barriers and his desire for privacy occasionally left Hernandez alone on a team of 25 players, being alone on the mound worked out just fine.

Hernandez went 5-3 in June and July, then won seven and lost one to finish the season with a 12-4 record. Along the way, he struck out 131 batters and compiled an earned run average of 3.13. Only Cone, with 13 wins, won more Yankees games after June 1. The team ran away from the pack in the American League East and finished with a record of 114-48. Cardenal and Posada kept telling El Duque that the postseason was what mattered and not the Yankees' gaudy record. Already pressure was being applied by the media with their games of "what if?". What if this team stormed through the season, only to spit the bit in the playoffs?

When the postseason opened against the Texas Rangers, the Yankees' pitching--the team's best suit--was so strong that the baffling deliveries of El Duque were not required. David Wells, Andy Pettitte and David Cone lead the sweep of the best-of-five confrontation as Texas scored just one run in 27 innings.

El Duque sat, but didn't complain. "It was not important that I pitched or that I won," he says. "It was important that the team won." So many teams, even great ones, had won with three-man rotations in the playoffs and World Series. That being the case, El Duque had to be wondering if he would be left out of the Yankees' tour throughout October.

His chance came in the American League Championship Series, after his team had fallen behind two games to one to the heavy-hitting Cleveland Indians. El Duque hadn't pitched in 15 days, which is about three times more rest than he needed. But he was getting the ball. The team was feeling the heat.

"I know that if I were one of my teammates and a rookie were pitching that game, I would have been nervous," he admits. During the day, he ate spaghetti as he normally did before games. In the Jacobs Field clubhouse, manager Joe Torre, steady and unflappable, walked by and asked, "How are you?" El Duque answered, "Fine. And you?" It was all the skipper needed to hear. "He just walked away," El Duque recalls.

El Duque's mound opponent was Dwight Gooden. If ever men appeared to be heading in different directions, these were the two. Just 33 years old, Gooden had entered baseball with a blare of trumpets at 19. He was then a fireballer with a purpose, a guy with a ballet kick and a leg drive who could throw gas past anyone. He was cutting his legs off by his third year, however, when he indulged a cocaine habit. He turned to alcohol, before rehabilitating himself.

After Gooden gave up a first-inning home run to Paul O'Neill, El Duque nearly served one up himself to Jim Thome, who hit a threatening fly ball to O'Neill on the warning track. "I knew it wasn't a home run," says Hernandez. "It was a change-up that stayed up in the zone. But the ball was going away from the hitter. When he swings to go the opposite way, he has a very quick bat, but he was out in front of this one. Later, I faced him again in a tough situation with men on first and second, and on a three-two pitch he struck out. I hung it the first time and I made sure the second time that I wouldn't hang it. I was very confident."

El Duque proceeded to unveil his full repertoire of baffling deliveries. With an exaggerated left leg kick--a straight-up, painful-looking thrust--his style transformed into high art. Cleveland hitters were leaning and guessing wrong all night and El Duque stifled them, 4-0.

Torre was awed with the clutch performance. "It's so incredible, the magnitude of that game. At the brunch that day, he [Hernandez] is serving people food and then picking up their plates! I thought, 'I don't know if he's gonna win, but he's not gonna be afraid.'"

"El Duque threw the hell out of the game," Cleveland slugger Manny Ramirez, who struck out three times, said afterward. "He had his sinker working and his slider."

Hernandez's delivery, a made-for-slo-mo tuck and kick, is reminiscent of several stylish hurlers from bygone eras. Old-timers will recall Van Lingle Mungo and Whit Wyatt and Warren Spahn. More recently, the high-kicking pantheon has included Luis Tiant and the "Dominican Dandy," Juan Marichal. When El Duque hears the name Marichal he blurts out, "El Mejor," ("The Great One"). With the right-handed Marichal, the kick was so high and out to the side that the ball seemed to be coming out from behind his spikes.

"Deception is a major part of pitching," says Jim Palmer, the Hall of Fame hurler for the Baltimore Orioles who won 268 games in a career that included eight 20-win seasons during a nine-year stretch in the '70s. "El Duque has three of the four ingredients. He has good stuff, great movement, and he's pretty deceptive. He's not intimidating, because he doesn't throw at guys, like some other pitchers. Those arm angles are very difficult if you're right-handed. You have to be left-handed to have a chance against him. It reminds me of when we were kids, when we were throwing whiffle balls and we dropped down--except he's doing it at a major league level. No wonder he has success."

"I don't like to imitate others," Hernandez says. "I would prefer to create my own style. My style of pitching has a little bit of a lot of other players. Because what can you do that hasn't already been invented?"

With the series deadlocked, the Yankees' hitting caught fire and the team took Games 5 and 6 to reach its 35th World Series. Because of El Duque's whitewashing of Cleveland, Torre changed his rotation for the World Series against the San Diego Padres. This time it would be Wells, Hernandez, Cone and Pettitte.

Whatever chance San Diego had vanished like a dawn mist in the first game. With nine outs left in Game 1, the Padres held a 5-2 lead, with their best pitcher on the mound. But Kevin Brown faltered and New York carpet-bombed the Padres' relief with a seven-run seventh.

San Diego discovered what the Indians had before them: an opportunity to beat the Yankees knocked just briefly and then was gone. El Duque was the beneficiary of a leaping catch against the right-field wall that saved him two runs in the first inning of Game 2. The game was over early, as the Yankees won, 9-3. On this national stage the country was learning that El Duque was as poised and stylish as he was good, as interesting to watch as he was effective.

When the action shifted to San Diego, the result was similar. The Yankees came from behind to win, 5-4, in Game 3 and shut out the Padres, 3-0, in Game 4 to sweep the Series.

The celebration was on. After the piling on, the clubhouse turned into a geyser of Champagne and a thick cloud of smoke. El Duque turned to his Cohibas. "After Game 2, I had smoked a cigar from a free country [Costa Rica] and now I passed out cigars to all the team. Tino [Martinez], [Tim] Raines and Chili Davis smoked." Even the casual smokers like Posada and Girardi had joined in to enjoy the Havanas. All 25 Cohibas were gone.

The celebration was not just for a team that won 125 games and lost 50, drawing comparisons to the greatest teams ever. There was a bonus. El Duque learned during the final game against the Padres that his mother and daughters were free to come to America. Cubas helped arrange for them to leave. "It was [John] Cardinal O'Connor who sent two personal envoys on the day of the fourth game of the Series," says Cubas. "They gave Castro a handwritten petition. The cardinal had received a handwritten petition from ourselves. It was during the third inning that I got the call that Castro had approved that the family could leave." Thirty hours later, at 3 o'clock in the morning, the Hernandez family was reunited.

"There is no question that God had a hand in this," recalls Hernandez. "It was the greatest ending of the year."

With so much good fortune packed into a 10-month period, one can understand Hernandez's reasons for celebrating--and smoking--more. His expanding list of choice brands already includes the Cuban Cohiba, Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta, and the Honduran Hoyo de Monterrey. He also enjoys the Cubas Gran Reserva, a cigar made by his agent's father, José Cubas Sr., a cigarmaker in Miami who will soon unveil an El Duque line. "Some days I don't even smoke," Hernandez says. "But in general, I smoke about a cigar a day. I smoke them because I enjoy them. I began smoking cigarettes at a young age but cigars at a more advanced age. Cigarettes are a habit that I consider damaging. It's dangerous and I quit. Like alcohol. I might have a casual drink here and there but I am not a drinker. Cigars are not as damaging as cigarettes. Plus the aroma of a good cigar is a great pleasure."

The postseason was highlighted by a parade for the Yankees before millions in the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan, then a mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral at which O'Connor praised those involved in bringing Hernandez's family to America. He praised Castro--the same Castro who had called Hernandez a "sports mercenary" after learning of his deal with the Yankees and who then said the family was free to return to Cuba. Then, in Spanish, O'Connor welcomed the family to the United States. Crowds of fans gathered outside and flashbulbs kept popping inside, as O'Connor attempted to keep the mass in focus. "The mass is not in honor of Orlando Hernandez, the mass is in honor of almighty God," he said. "But we thank almighty God for making it possible for the family to be here." Before the mass ended, O'Connor donned a Yankees cap.

Asked whether his family will stay in the United States beyond the six months allowed by their visas, Hernandez said, "I'm not sure if they're staying. But I can't change the fact that if you feel well in a certain place then you stay."

That applies, of course, to Hernandez, too. He has three years left on his contract with the Yankees--a deal that, in light of his performance last year, now looks much more like a steal than when he was an unproven phenom. As the team that won more than any in history explores its limits and reaches for a twenty-fifth world championship, so too can he explore his limits.

A great tradition of Latin American players in the major leagues precedes him: Luis Tiant, the pitcher from Marianao, Cuba, with the numbing spin delivery and the inscrutable habit of smoking cigars in the shower after victories, who won 229 games in his 19-year career; Minnie Minoso, the Jackie Robinson of Latin baseball, who didn't become a regular major league outfielder until he was 28 years old, yet played his last game at the age of 57, hitting over .300 eight times in 17 seasons, and Marichal, who made the Hall of Fame on the strength of 243 victories--to name only a few.

With no shortage of Cuban idols, Hernandez must meet an imposing challenge. The great Yankees don't have just one memorable year, nor do their great teams pat their own backs after one remarkable season. To have staying power, Horatio Alger stories must last. For El Duque, the escape is over but the journey is just beginning.

Kenneth Shouler is a contributor to Cigar Aficionado and the author of The Real 100 Best Baseball Players of All Time--and Why. A Hero's Modest Begininng

The extraordinary saga of Orlando Hernandez, better known as El Duque, began in an unlikely spot, a humble town in rural Cuba. But the pitcher's family and friends who remain there never doubted his ultimate success.

The town of Wajay sits in the Cuban countryside about 25 miles south of Havana. Surrounded by open fields and small farms, it consists of a short main street and small, close-set houses. The homes, built of cement and stucco, are painted in bright colors, embodying the innate cheerfulness of this resilient people, but, reflecting the tough times they've faced for so many years, the paint is patched and peeling. Bicycles outnumber the battered old cars in the street; children play in dusty yards and old men squat in the December sunshine.

At a shabby pink house, a young woman answers a knock on the door. Her eyes are sleepy but her face lights up in a smile. Yes, this is the house where El Duque lived.

Her name is Yusleydys; she's 17, married to Geraldo Enrique Regalado Pedroso, one of the pitcher's brothers, and lives in the house with her brother, Miguel. She invites us in. The one-room dwelling is divided in two by a makeshift wall of concrete blocks; the front portion is a living room, with a cement floor, a few battered chairs, a large television set and an aquarium that glows a ghostly green.

It could be any poor person's house in any tropical town. Except that one of the family photographs taped to the wall captures Hernandez in a Yankees cap, smiling from a convertible that's rolling down Broadway in New York City, surrounded by cheering crowds. And on a shelf below the television, what looks like a shrine includes a trophy of a baseball player and an aluminum bat.

"Lots of people have come to see where El Duque lived," Yusleydys says. She relates that the pitcher's mother lived here, and his grandmother and grandfather, who sold newspapers and magazines for a living. "His father was here for a while," she adds. "He was a baseball player, too, and so were his brothers. But I think El Duque was the best."

An old man who lives next door shares her pride in Hernandez's success story. He mumbles his name--government surveillance is still pervasive in Cuba--but he's voluble in his praise for the hometown pitcher; "All the kids around here play baseball. We are happy that El Duque plays so well."


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