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SI FOR KIDS
Three fellow refugees say the tale of Yankees ace Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez's escape from Cuba doesn't hold water
Posted: Thursday November 26, 1998 03:43 PM
By L. Jon Wertheim and Don Yaeger
Never mind the World Series ring he earned pitching for the New York Yankees, the conspicuous consumption occasioned by his four-year, $6.6 million contract or the appearance on Letterman he taped earlier this month. The Americanization of Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, less than a year removed from an $8.75-a-month job at a Havana psychiatric hospital, last week reached an inevitable juncture. As the treatment for the El Duque movie was being shopped furiously to major Hollywood studios and his autobiography was being pitched to New York publishing houses, Hernandez was named as the defendant in an $800,000 lawsuit. Now all the guy needs to do is cut a rap album and make a guest appearance at Wrestlemania and he'll be as quintessentially American as his nicknamesake, John Wayne.
Demanding damages for breach of an oral agreement, Juan Carlos Romero filed a civil suit against El Duque in Costa Rica, where both men were granted asylum after their dramatic escape from Cuba. Romero, who was part-owner and navigator of the boat that transported Hernandez from the Cuban port of Caibarien to the Bahamas, alleges in a written summary of his case that the Yankees pitcher promised he would help Romero enter the United States, support him and help him obtain "a well-remunerated job." Now, as Hernandez indulges in the spoils of capitalism, Romero and his pregnant wife, Geidi, eke out an existence in Costa Rica while living in an abandoned warehouse they rent for $80 a month. "I took him out of Cuba, and he should be grateful to me for his entire life," says Romero, 31, who had served for eight years in the Cuban military before defecting. "He promised to take care of me, and I'm barely making enough for food, rent and clothes."
Regardless of the lawsuit's merit, Romero's plight suggests that the legend of El Duque has been embroidered in the retelling. Amid the shroud of hagiography, the facts of El Duque's journey from a shack in Havana to vaunted Yankee Stadium have become increasingly elastic -- so much so that even his teammates wonder about the truth. "Who knows what the raft was like? Who knows how treacherous the waters were?" Yankees pitcher David Cone recently told the New York Daily News. "There's a mystery, something intangible about El Duque."
As for what really happened on the voyage, Hernandez, for one, isn't saying. Savvy opportunist that he has become, he implores us to read about the details when his book comes out. Or, better yet, wait for the movie, in which, according to Vanguard Films, one of four production companies that have invested in the project, he'll be portrayed by -- who else? -- Cuba Gooding Jr. In recent interviews with SI, however, three of the other passengers aboard the boat from Cuba -- Romero, his wife and Leny Rivero, who had no apparent connection to El Duque but bought himself a spot on the boat -- gave an account of the trip that would debunk some of the myths that, like Jack's beanstalk, have grown unchecked. Indeed, when asked how much of the publicized version of the escape is true, Rivero told SI, "Poquito [little]."
According to the three parties interviewed, in the early morning of Dec. 26 of last year, Hernandez and his common-law wife, Noris Bosch; Alberto Hernandez (no relation), a catcher on the Cuban national team; Osmani Lorenzo, a boyhood friend of El Duque's; Joel Pedroso, a cousin of El Duque's; and Rivero piled into Lorenzo's decades-old Chevy in Havana and, slowed by engine troubles, drove five hours east on Cuba's northern coast to Caibarien. There they were joined by Romero and Geidi, and they all waded into waist-deep water to board a boat secured by Romero, who, through inside information, also knew where the Cuban coast guard would be positioned that day. An unidentified ninth passenger who had piloted the boat to the waters off Caibarien and had no intention of defecting, was already aboard.
While the vessel was a far cry from a Carnival cruise ship or even a cigar boat, neither was it a leaky, rickety assemblage of flotsam and jetsam, as it has often been described. A 20-foot wooden fishing boat, the craft was equipped with a six-cylinder, Russian-built engine that allowed it to clip along at speeds of up to 20 knots. "It wasn't a raft," says Romero with a laugh. "It was a good boat."
Further, the 35-mile trip from Cuba to Anguilla Cay, one of the southwesternmost Bahamian islands, wasn't exactly an adventure worthy of Robinson Crusoe. Newsweek, among other media outlets, reported that "the boat started leaking almost immediately after leaving shore. With constant bailing and rowing, it managed to last 10 hours before sinking." But according to the three passengers interviewed, never did the ship spring a leak during its 10-hour voyage, nor did it sink or run aground. In addition, contrary to a part of myth that could have been lifted straight out of Gilligan's Island, the weather never started getting rough; the tiny ship was never tossed. "It was perfect weather," says Juan Carlos Romero. "We sailed calmly, the sea was smooth." As for the sharks that were reportedly drawn to the boat, Geidi Romero says, "We never saw any sharks. The only fish we saw was a marlin that jumped out of the water twice."
The original plan, according to Romero, his wife and Rivero -- as well as El Duque's uncle Osilio Cruz, who lives in Miami and told SI he was involved in organizing the escape -- was that Romero's craft would be met at Anguilla Cay by a boat sent by Jorge Ramis, a self-described businessman and friend of Cruz's who also lives in Miami. As the Romeros and Rivero understood it, the boat sent by Ramis (who could not be reached for comment) would take the group to Miami. When the refugees reached Anguilla Cay, however, that boat wasn't there (U.S. Coast Guard records reveal that a 23-foot Monaco, which Cruz told SI was the boat dispatched by Ramis, took on water and was rescued five miles from Anguilla Cay the next day), so, just 10 yards from the island's shore, the group of eight disembarked. The ninth passenger returned Romero's boat to Cuba so that authorities there would not grow suspicious about its absence.
Because Ramis had assured the Cubans, through intermediaries, that his boat would meet them, Romero had brought only two cans of Spam, two bags of sugar and 10 gallons of water for the trip. With these supplies quickly depleted, the group survived on the uninhabited island for four days, subsisting on sea conchs that they fished out of the shallows and roasted in old pans left by previous defectors who had spent time there. (Contrary to media reports, the group didn't eat seaweed, according to Romero and his wife.) The stranded Cubans used a flash camera and waved a stick with a rag tied to it to try to attract the attention of planes overhead. Finally, they were spotted by a helicopter and rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. The Coast Guard ship, ironically, happened to be on its way to Havana to drop off three repatriated Cubans, so El Duque's group was taken first to the waters off the Cuban capital. There, petrified that they would be spotted and forced to return to shore, they were furtively transferred to another Coast Guard ship, which headed north to Bimini.
If there was any adventure on the high seas, it occurred on this return leg. The Coast Guard boat was buffeted by rain, wind and massive waves, causing the passengers to surrender the contents of their stomachs. Unable to negotiate a channel into the port of Bimini because of the weather, the boat continued north and finally docked at Freeport. From there the eight were taken to the airport and flown to the Carmichael Road immigration detention center in Nassau.
Within hours of El Duque's arrival at the complex, Joe Cubas, the Miami sports agent who specializes in representing Cuban-born baseball players and who had been tipped off that Hernandez was being detained, showed up at the refugee center. Though El Duque's half-brother Livan Hernandez, the Florida Marlins pitcher, had had a bitter falling out with Cubas after defecting to the U.S., in 1995, a partnership was born when Cubas pressed $500 into El Duque's hands and flashed him a smile. "Cubas was always talking about all the money El Duque was going to make," says Romero. (According to Vanguard, Cubas, a bearded man of Danny DeVito-like proportions, will be played in the movie by Latin heartthrob Antonio Banderas.)
Presumably because of their status as ballplayers, El Duque and Alberto Hernandez were offered humanitarian visas to the U.S., as was Bosch, but the other five members of the party were not. Because, as he would say at a Miami press conference several weeks later, his "morals did not permit me to leave the other five passengers behind," El Duque refused the American visa. Bosch, who accepted the offer and flew to Miami, told Gear magazine, "I was pleading with him [to accept an American visa]. But he said no. For him, friendship is the most important thing. When he has a friend, he will stay with them until death divides them."
Once Cubas arrived, however, El Duque also had another reason to decline the American offer and seek asylum elsewhere. Under Major League Baseball rules, a Cuban player who accepts asylum in the U.S. is subject to the draft, while a Cuban player who obtains residency in a third country is considered a free agent. Having exploited this loophole on numerous occasions, Cubas laid out the plan to El Duque in the Bahamas; El Duque told the rest of the group. Using his connections, Cubas obtained Costa Rican visas for El Duque and the six others and whisked them to Central America in a Learjet.
Sure enough, within weeks a bevy of scouts had descended on Costa Rica, and their teams engaged in a bidding war for El Duque that the Yankees eventually won. His contract secured, El Duque embarked on the good life and, to hear the Romeros tell it, hasn't turned back since to check on the fate of his old captain. "I want him to win, and I cheer for him to win," says Geidi. "I just wish he had not left us behind while he got what we all got into that boat for."
Since then, the marketing of El Duque has spun into high gear. Cubas not only wasted little time peddling the movie and the autobiography -- "He obviously doesn't know the book business or what this story is worth," says a top editor at one New York publishing house that rejected the book, "because he was asking for crazy money" -- but also gave his client-cum-meal-ticket a crash course in the niceties of capitalism. Early into the season El Duque began coyly refusing to recount the story of his escape, standing by silently while the breathless media engaged in a Rashomon-like retelling of his tale. On those occasions when he did speak of the voyage, he often contributed to the myth. "If the sharks didn't frighten me when I was floating around in the Caribbean," he told NBC during the ALCS, displaying the same guile he would show on the mound, "the Cleveland Indians won't frighten me either." Ain't that America.
Cubas did not respond to repeated calls from SI requesting an interview with Hernandez. El Duque could rightfully point out, however, that his renown as a ballplayer helped the group quickly gain asylum in Costa Rica -- other refugees have been stuck in the Bahamian detention center for many months -- and that Cubas helped Romero and his wife in a number of ways after their arrival in Costa Rica, such as putting them up in a hotel for a couple of weeks and paying their first month's rent. In remarks to The Miami Herald last February, Cubas, the son of Cuban immigrants, addressed complaints from the Romeros and fellow refugee Pedroso that El Duque and Cubas weren't doing enough to help them. "You aren't owed anything," Cubas told the Herald. "Those three have come here with such mistaken minds. My father came here with nothing, eating crackers and cat food, and he never asked for anything. You aren't owed anything here. You must earn it. Let them drown."
Whatever the resolution of Hernandez's legal contretemps with Romero, you won't be hearing about it if and when the raft-to-riches movie comes out. "It's a very inspiring story of a true hero," says John Williams, a producer for Vanguard, "but the story of El Duque will be over when he meets Joe Cubas and comes to the United States. That's when the movie ends."
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