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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 2)

They were not out of danger yet. Earlier in 1997, before El Duque arrived there, the Bahamas had signed a treaty with the Cuban government that allows it to deport Cubans who arrive there. It was that treaty that prompted Cubas into action. "I immediately flew into the Bahamas and put pressure on the Bahamian government not to have these guys deported. We were bombarded by the media with calls about El Duque being there and people thinking I was involved in his escape from Cuba, which I was not." By January 6, after days of meetings with U.S. immigration officials, countless phone calls to members of Congress and officials of the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican governments--and after receiving a stern 24-hour notice from the Bahamas that unless he got the refugees out, they'd be deported to Cuba--Cubas was able to secure humanitarian visas and get them out just ahead of the deadline.

Once in Costa Rica, Cubas first got everyone's immigration documentation squared away. If Hernandez were a Costa Rican resident, he could enter baseball as a free agent and would stand to make more money than he would if he were a U.S. resident and subject to the amateur draft.

Cubas now had to prepare Hernandez, physically and mentally, to pitch. He hadn't thrown off a mound for two years. The first task was to get the leg and arm strength back, to throw hard and to see if the breaking stuff was still there.

In February, Cubas invited 62 scouts and representatives from all of the major league teams to take a look at the pitcher. El Duque pitched impressively in his audition, throwing two innings in an exhibition game and three in another.

Several teams opened the bidding in the neighborhood of $1 million a year. But Cubas reports that only two made a strong bid. "Seattle wasn't in the picture and Anaheim was only minimally involved in the picture. The decision came down to the Indians and the Yankees."

While negotiations went on, Hernandez badgered Cubas to close a deal with New York. Since his childhood, El Duque had heard primarily about two major league teams: the Dodgers and the Yankees. "We heard about Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford and all those players who had gone through the Yankees," says Hernandez. "I didn't want to lose out on that opportunity. In reality, my first objective was to play baseball. But when I saw the opportunity to play for the Yankees--Joe may not want to say this, but I was driving him crazy!--I told him, 'Get the Yankees, get the Yankees!'"

Cubas urged Hernandez, "Let me do this." His objective was to find the best deal.

As it turned out, compromise was not necessary. The Yankees were singing the sweetest tune. With Cubas seeking $8 million for his client and the Yankees offering $5 million, the two sides compromised; the offer was for a four-year deal totaling $6.6 million.

Once the terms were agreed to, Hernandez moved to the States and set about the business of becoming "El Duque" again. "The rest is history," says Cubas, in a voice that reflects a measure of pride for whatever part he played in the "Orlando Alger" tale that followed.

El Duque went to spring training and then was assigned to the Yankees' single-A team in Tampa, Florida. Another conversion would also have to take place. Now El Duque--taking the nickname of his father, who hurled a ball and dressed with equal verve--would get the chance to see if the 127-49 record he had compiled with the Cuba national team would mean anything when he pitched against the world's best competition. From the outset, all indications were good.

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