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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 4)

"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.

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