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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 6)

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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