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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 5)

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.

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