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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)

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."

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.

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.

Some in the Yankees organization had not expected him to make it to the big leagues in his first year, thinking that he might spend the entire season in the minors building arm strength and fine-tuning his stuff after such a long hiatus. He surprised them.

The minor leagues were a lark. He struck out 15 hitters in two outings with Tampa, earning him a quick promotion to Columbus, the Yankees' top farm team. In seven starts, he went 6-0 while striking out an amazing 59 batters in 42 1/3 innings. Then when Yankees hurler David Cone went down with--of all injuries, a dog bite to his finger--El Duque got the call. On June 3, he hurled one-run, five-hit ball in seven innings against Tampa Bay. As Yankee Stadium fans waved Cuban flags, New York won easily, 7-1. "It had been years since I pitched in front of so many people," he says. "I was very moved and very emotional about it because it was my beginning. I will always remember my first game. I was going to walk out on the field dressed with my number for life, my number 26. Although it was said that I wore 26 because of July the 26th, the date of [Castro's first uprising against Batista], that's not so. I wore 26 because my father did."

Jorge Posada played catcher, then interpreter. El Duque cried when he said, "I'm dedicating this to my mom and family in Cuba." Posada blinked back tears. Even Norman Rockwell might have found this story too corny. It all had the ring of a fairy tale, and it was only beginning.

Getting along off the field, however, was not as easy. "Just put it this way," Yankees first base coach Jose Cardenal said at the time, "El Duque's going through the same thing that [Japanese pitcher] Hideki Irabu went through last year. It's a big adjustment for El Duque. But he's trying. He doesn't speak the language. That's hard." (Cardenal left Cuba legally in 1961 at the age of 16. The next time he saw his family was in 1979, after his 18-year major league career had ended. His mother passed him in an airport without recognizing him.)

Cardenal attributed El Duque's desire for privacy to his language difficulties. "He can't participate in conversations. He doesn't know what anyone is saying." But even other Latino players on the team, like relief ace Mariano Rivera, don't know Hernandez that well. "There are things we don't talk about," Rivera said last year. "When he's ready to talk to me, he will. He has to realize one thing--he's not in Cuba anymore. He's here. He has to learn how to communicate with people." Even Cardenal concedes, "Maybe there are things he should share with someone he trusts. Not me, necessarily, but he should share with some other person."

While language barriers and his desire for privacy occasionally left Hernandez alone on a team of 25 players, being alone on the mound worked out just fine.


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