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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

Orlando Hernandez and his wife, Norris Bosch, made their plans during a wedding party on the evening of December 25, 1997. Under cover of night, they drove with three friends to Caibarien, a coastal town about 120 miles east of Havana. As day was breaking, they trudged through woods and waded into waist-high water to board a small sailboat with three others. The group, including several baseball players, was escaping to the United States.

If all went well, their slow route to a better world would be complete in about six hours, and the ace who had once pitched for the Cuban national team and been banned for life on charges of aiding his half-brother's defection to the United States would be free to start a new baseball career.

But so much could go wrong. They had only a gallon of water, some brown sugar, three cans of Spam and gas. The weather was warm, the sea calm and the wind with them, so the journey wasn't high on adventure. But it was high on anxiety. What if the Cuban Coast Guard interrupted their clandestine journey? What if their poorly built vessel began taking on water? What if the seas got rough or the wind turned on them? In some ways their journey replicated the experience of countless immigrants to America. The America Hernandez sought was a freer, more abundant place. But he was leaving behind two daughters from a previous marriage, Yahumara, 9, and Steffi, 3, and his mother, Maria Julia Pedrosa.

Hernandez, 29, is sitting in the coffee shop of an East Side Manhattan hotel, telling the story of his defection and all that has happened since. Joe Cubas, 38, his agent and friend who played a crucial part in getting Hernandez safely to the United States, is translating for him. Hernandez sports a hair style now in vogue among athletes--which is to say, no hair at all. He describes his journey with enthusiasm. He works to use the right words in Spanish. He smiles easily, his face lighting up like a new bulb. Expressions of piety, such as "God had a hand in this" or "With God's help..." repeatedly find their way into his speech. After one hears his tale, the reasons for his devotion are evident.

The trip was only about 35 miles but took 12 hours. "This was the work of God, because on top of everything the water was very calm and the winds were in our favor. So I expected the good Lord's hand was there. We were all thinking about what we had left behind, our families, and about everything that awaits you on the frontier."

When the boat began taking on water, the crew landed on Anguilla Cay, an uninhabited island in the Bahamas. There they waited to be picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard. Hernandez had told acquaintances in Cuba to get the word out to America 10 hours after he was gone.

Day one came and went, and on day two it rained. Still no sign of a rescue. Food was scarce and water even more so. Several of his companions ate seaweed. Hernandez ate shellfish found in the shallow waters. The wait afforded him ample time to think. So many things ran through his mind. He knew little about the world he was going to and too much about the one he left.

His life after his banishment from baseball in 1996 had become a living hell. Still needing to provide for his family, he had found work three days after his suspension in a psychiatric facility for $8.75 a month.

People in the street had taunted him: "You were 'El Duque,' now you're nothing." The government had called him a "traitor to the revolution." He had been picked up, arrested and taken to state security interrogation at least three times. He had once told Joe Cubas that while he was on the Cuban national team, he would never defect. But he had lost the upper hand in this game and the Castro government was winning by a wide margin.

His childhood had been far better. "My father [Arnaldo] had many different wives," El Duque says with a laugh, his face lighting up broadly, realizing the question of how many brothers and sisters he has is a difficult one. His father, a prominent pitcher on the Cuban national team in the 1960s, who remains popular in Cuba today, divorced his mother when Orlando was very young. "When he lived with me, I was [influenced by his pitching style]," Hernandez recalls. His mother worked in a psychiatric hospital as an occupational therapist for many years. "I was a very happy person because my family worked very hard," he says. "I didn't have the best material things in the world, but in my heart my life was the best in the world."

Across the changing landscape of his childhood, baseball was a constant. "My father was a guide for me in baseball," he says. "I slept with my bat and ball and glove." His father called all of his brothers "duques" (or dukes). The oldest children were "big duques" and the youngest "little duques." "I started playing at about seven years old. I would not cry for food when I was young, but I did cry for baseball. When I was a kid I played many positions; I played shortstop and I had good hands. I never caught. I played mini-baseball at seven years old."

The crowning glory of the right-handed pitcher's young career was making the Cuban national team, in 1988, at the age of 18. While being selected for the team is the apex of baseball achievement in Cuba, even that doesn't pay a living wage. Cuban team players now make about 280 pesos a month, about 12 dollars. "Everyone is on the black market there or they can't survive," says Joe Cubas. "You don't see red meat. If a pound of rice is going for 50 pesos, that's a quarter of your monthly salary right there. So everyone is on the black market: one will make napkins, one will make forks, the other makes this, the other makes that. It's a barter system."

In addition to playing for the national team, Hernandez pitched for the Industriales, one of Cuba's strongest teams and a perennial champion of the country. The Havana-based club is one of 16 teams, each representing a different town in Cuba, that compete in a national series (similar to the major leagues' regular season in America). The teams, which are divided between the Orientales and the Occidentales zones, comprise of the best players in each province. A series of playoffs winnows the talent from Occidentales and Orientales down to two teams that play a seven-game series akin to the World Series. The winner of the seven-game series is Cuba's champion.

Hernandez's first chance to display his talents in front of the world came in 1992, when Cuba won the gold medal in the Olympics. "I was bombed in the fourth game against the United States," Hernandez remembers. "We won, but I didn't pitch well. Then I beat China, 6-1." The glory was short-lived.

Three years later when his half-brother, Livan Hernandez, defected, Orlando was suspected of helping him and was considered a risk to do the same. "When Livan said he was leaving, all I did was wish him well. They tried to implicate me entirely in Livan leaving. But I wasn't the one who picked him up in the boat."

His voice turns scornful in describing what happened next. "It hurt very much not to pitch in the 1996 Olympics [in Atlanta, where Cuba won its second consecutive gold medal], because the government circulated many, many lies. They said that I was hurt.

"But there was a contradiction, because the [Cuban] press at the time, prior to the Olympics, began listing the skills and the results of the players by position. The Cubans were saying that I didn't have the skills, but the first pitcher on that list was Orlando 'El Duque' Hernandez. It was a contradiction, a true lie."

Anyone who maintains that El Duque couldn't pitch, at that or any other time, is flying in the face of the facts. He amassed a lifetime record of 127 wins and 49 losses (.722), the best ever in the history of the Cuban national league. At Havana's Central Park, where fans gather to argue about Cuban and American baseball, one of the regulars, Diosvel Rojas, was quoted as saying, "I know it is hard for Americans to believe, but as good as Livan [who won the World Series Most Valuable Player award for leading the Florida Marlins to the 1997 title] is, Duque is even better, and everyone in Cuba will tell you that."

So his career had been derailed in Cuba. And not all was going as planned as he made his escape, either. "When we first got to Anguilla Cay, we walked around and found pots and pans," Hernandez recounts. "We also took a little bit of gas, with which we were able to light a fire and cook. On that island, there have been millions that have come through--from Cuba, from Haiti, from a lot of countries--and they've left things behind. You see rafts, you see boats, you see sails, engines of boats. We were isolated there for three days, and on the fourth day [December 29] we were rescued. Less than one can of Spam was left, water was very short and we were already thinking of desalting the seawater to make fresh water. I felt very strong, but if I had to wait any longer I would have had to search deeper into the island for food."

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter finally spotted their party. Several hours later the refugees were on a cutter heading toward Freeport in the Bahamas.

They were not out of danger yet. Earlier in 1997, before El Duque arrived there, the Bahamas had signed a treaty with the Cuban government that allows it to deport Cubans who arrive there. It was that treaty that prompted Cubas into action. "I immediately flew into the Bahamas and put pressure on the Bahamian government not to have these guys deported. We were bombarded by the media with calls about El Duque being there and people thinking I was involved in his escape from Cuba, which I was not." By January 6, after days of meetings with U.S. immigration officials, countless phone calls to members of Congress and officials of the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican governments--and after receiving a stern 24-hour notice from the Bahamas that unless he got the refugees out, they'd be deported to Cuba--Cubas was able to secure humanitarian visas and get them out just ahead of the deadline.

Once in Costa Rica, Cubas first got everyone's immigration documentation squared away. If Hernandez were a Costa Rican resident, he could enter baseball as a free agent and would stand to make more money than he would if he were a U.S. resident and subject to the amateur draft.

Cubas now had to prepare Hernandez, physically and mentally, to pitch. He hadn't thrown off a mound for two years. The first task was to get the leg and arm strength back, to throw hard and to see if the breaking stuff was still there.

In February, Cubas invited 62 scouts and representatives from all of the major league teams to take a look at the pitcher. El Duque pitched impressively in his audition, throwing two innings in an exhibition game and three in another.

Several teams opened the bidding in the neighborhood of $1 million a year. But Cubas reports that only two made a strong bid. "Seattle wasn't in the picture and Anaheim was only minimally involved in the picture. The decision came down to the Indians and the Yankees."

While negotiations went on, Hernandez badgered Cubas to close a deal with New York. Since his childhood, El Duque had heard primarily about two major league teams: the Dodgers and the Yankees. "We heard about Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford and all those players who had gone through the Yankees," says Hernandez. "I didn't want to lose out on that opportunity. In reality, my first objective was to play baseball. But when I saw the opportunity to play for the Yankees--Joe may not want to say this, but I was driving him crazy!--I told him, 'Get the Yankees, get the Yankees!'"

Cubas urged Hernandez, "Let me do this." His objective was to find the best deal.

As it turned out, compromise was not necessary. The Yankees were singing the sweetest tune. With Cubas seeking $8 million for his client and the Yankees offering $5 million, the two sides compromised; the offer was for a four-year deal totaling $6.6 million.

Once the terms were agreed to, Hernandez moved to the States and set about the business of becoming "El Duque" again. "The rest is history," says Cubas, in a voice that reflects a measure of pride for whatever part he played in the "Orlando Alger" tale that followed.

El Duque went to spring training and then was assigned to the Yankees' single-A team in Tampa, Florida. Another conversion would also have to take place. Now El Duque--taking the nickname of his father, who hurled a ball and dressed with equal verve--would get the chance to see if the 127-49 record he had compiled with the Cuba national team would mean anything when he pitched against the world's best competition. From the outset, all indications were good.

Some in the Yankees organization had not expected him to make it to the big leagues in his first year, thinking that he might spend the entire season in the minors building arm strength and fine-tuning his stuff after such a long hiatus. He surprised them.

The minor leagues were a lark. He struck out 15 hitters in two outings with Tampa, earning him a quick promotion to Columbus, the Yankees' top farm team. In seven starts, he went 6-0 while striking out an amazing 59 batters in 42 1/3 innings. Then when Yankees hurler David Cone went down with--of all injuries, a dog bite to his finger--El Duque got the call. On June 3, he hurled one-run, five-hit ball in seven innings against Tampa Bay. As Yankee Stadium fans waved Cuban flags, New York won easily, 7-1. "It had been years since I pitched in front of so many people," he says. "I was very moved and very emotional about it because it was my beginning. I will always remember my first game. I was going to walk out on the field dressed with my number for life, my number 26. Although it was said that I wore 26 because of July the 26th, the date of [Castro's first uprising against Batista], that's not so. I wore 26 because my father did."

Jorge Posada played catcher, then interpreter. El Duque cried when he said, "I'm dedicating this to my mom and family in Cuba." Posada blinked back tears. Even Norman Rockwell might have found this story too corny. It all had the ring of a fairy tale, and it was only beginning.

Getting along off the field, however, was not as easy. "Just put it this way," Yankees first base coach Jose Cardenal said at the time, "El Duque's going through the same thing that [Japanese pitcher] Hideki Irabu went through last year. It's a big adjustment for El Duque. But he's trying. He doesn't speak the language. That's hard." (Cardenal left Cuba legally in 1961 at the age of 16. The next time he saw his family was in 1979, after his 18-year major league career had ended. His mother passed him in an airport without recognizing him.)

Cardenal attributed El Duque's desire for privacy to his language difficulties. "He can't participate in conversations. He doesn't know what anyone is saying." But even other Latino players on the team, like relief ace Mariano Rivera, don't know Hernandez that well. "There are things we don't talk about," Rivera said last year. "When he's ready to talk to me, he will. He has to realize one thing--he's not in Cuba anymore. He's here. He has to learn how to communicate with people." Even Cardenal concedes, "Maybe there are things he should share with someone he trusts. Not me, necessarily, but he should share with some other person."

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."

Sergio Hernandez, a wiry fellow on an old bicycle offers that "I used to play with El Duque. You want to see where we played?"

Across town is a baseball field carved out of the countryside. It's hardly lavish--the two brick dugouts are falling apart, there are no grandstands, the infield is simply red clay cleared of scrubby grass, and a herd of goats grazes in right field. But it's well tended, and a sign on the outfield fence indicates 400 feet to straightaway center.

"The government keeps a close eye on the good baseball players," explains Hernandez (no relation to the pitcher). "If you're good, they promote you quickly to higher leagues. When El Duque was barely in his teens he was already playing with the grown-ups."

No one expresses anger that Hernandez defected from Cuba, nor resentment that he is now a millionaire, living a life that those he left behind can hardly even imagine.

"A few years ago, people might have criticized El Duque for leaving, considered him a bad socialist," says Boris Rodriguez, sommelier at Las Ruinas, one of Havana's most lavish restaurants. "But no longer. Now we think of him simply as a Cuban, like ourselves, and we are happy that he is showing the world how talented a Cuban can be."

Enrique Munz, who runs a cigar shop, agrees. "Life is short," he reflects. "Each one of us has to do the best we can. I don't criticize anyone's choice."

The only note of dissent comes from a bartender at the legendary Floridita, where Hemingway used to drink his Daiquiris and entertain his friends.

"Of course we're happy that El Duque has shown the world how good Cuban baseball players really are," says Juan Carlos Fernandez. "But we've got plenty more just as good, and even better, still here!"

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