El Duque's Excellent Adventure
How Cuba's ace pitcher escaped political oppression to become part of a great American success story.
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99
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Across the changing landscape of his childhood, baseball was a constant. "My father was a guide for me in baseball," he says. "I slept with my bat and ball and glove." His father called all of his brothers "duques" (or dukes). The oldest children were "big duques" and the youngest "little duques." "I started playing at about seven years old. I would not cry for food when I was young, but I did cry for baseball. When I was a kid I played many positions; I played shortstop and I had good hands. I never caught. I played mini-baseball at seven years old."
The crowning glory of the right-handed pitcher's young career was making the Cuban national team, in 1988, at the age of 18. While being selected for the team is the apex of baseball achievement in Cuba, even that doesn't pay a living wage. Cuban team players now make about 280 pesos a month, about 12 dollars. "Everyone is on the black market there or they can't survive," says Joe Cubas. "You don't see red meat. If a pound of rice is going for 50 pesos, that's a quarter of your monthly salary right there. So everyone is on the black market: one will make napkins, one will make forks, the other makes this, the other makes that. It's a barter system."
In addition to playing for the national team, Hernandez pitched for the Industriales, one of Cuba's strongest teams and a perennial champion of the country. The Havana-based club is one of 16 teams, each representing a different town in Cuba, that compete in a national series (similar to the major leagues' regular season in America). The teams, which are divided between the Orientales and the Occidentales zones, comprise of the best players in each province. A series of playoffs winnows the talent from Occidentales and Orientales down to two teams that play a seven-game series akin to the World Series. The winner of the seven-game series is Cuba's champion.
Hernandez's first chance to display his talents in front of the world came in 1992, when Cuba won the gold medal in the Olympics. "I was bombed in the fourth game against the United States," Hernandez remembers. "We won, but I didn't pitch well. Then I beat China, 6-1." The glory was short-lived.
Three years later when his half-brother, Livan Hernandez, defected, Orlando was suspected of helping him and was considered a risk to do the same. "When Livan said he was leaving, all I did was wish him well. They tried to implicate me entirely in Livan leaving. But I wasn't the one who picked him up in the boat."
His voice turns scornful in describing what happened next. "It hurt very much not to pitch in the 1996 Olympics [in Atlanta, where Cuba won its second consecutive gold medal], because the government circulated many, many lies. They said that I was hurt.
"But there was a contradiction, because the [Cuban] press at the time, prior to the Olympics, began listing the skills and the results of the players by position. The Cubans were saying that I didn't have the skills, but the first pitcher on that list was Orlando 'El Duque' Hernandez. It was a contradiction, a true lie."
Anyone who maintains that El Duque couldn't pitch, at that or any other time, is flying in the face of the facts. He amassed a lifetime record of 127 wins and 49 losses (.722), the best ever in the history of the Cuban national league. At Havana's Central Park, where fans gather to argue about Cuban and American baseball, one of the regulars, Diosvel Rojas, was quoted as saying, "I know it is hard for Americans to believe, but as good as Livan [who won the World Series Most Valuable Player award for leading the Florida Marlins to the 1997 title] is, Duque is even better, and everyone in Cuba will tell you that."
So his career had been derailed in Cuba. And not all was going as planned as he made his escape, either. "When we first got to Anguilla Cay, we walked around and found pots and pans," Hernandez recounts. "We also took a little bit of gas, with which we were able to light a fire and cook. On that island, there have been millions that have come through--from Cuba, from Haiti, from a lot of countries--and they've left things behind. You see rafts, you see boats, you see sails, engines of boats. We were isolated there for three days, and on the fourth day [December 29] we were rescued. Less than one can of Spam was left, water was very short and we were already thinking of desalting the seawater to make fresh water. I felt very strong, but if I had to wait any longer I would have had to search deeper into the island for food."
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter finally spotted their party. Several hours later the refugees were on a cutter heading toward Freeport in the Bahamas.
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