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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 3)

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.

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