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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."

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