He is so calm. It's cold and drizzling, and the expected fiesta of Cuban solidarity at Joe Robbie Stadium on March 10 has faded with the sun; what was meant to be an electric occasion feels like death in the afternoon. But the Florida Marlins' exhibition opener begins, and Livan Hernandez, recently of Havana and the Cuban national team, doesn't feel any of that. He lifts his left leg easily, plants it with delicate grace and punishes the Toronto Blue Jays. Fastball, slider, changeup, curve. Bats swing and miss. Three rainy innings pass, and no one can touch him.
"He's pretty gutsy," says Toronto first baseman John Olerud. "He comes at you with everything."
"He definitely can pitch in the big leagues," adds Blue Jays catcher Charlie O'Brien.
Hernandez comes to the plate in the bottom of the third. He has batted in the U.S. only once before. First pitch: He drills a double down the leftfield line, and what has been a soggy clinic ignites into something more. The 16,955 fans stand, bellowing for the first time at this 21-year-old from whom the Marlins expect so much, and it is beginning to sink in, this rarest of rare things: a hype job come true.
He stands on the mound. It is the fourth inning, and an error has allowed Toronto's Alex Gonzalez to reach first base. Now here is Joe Carter, good enough to win a World Series with his bat once. Hernandez throws three pitches, including a 96-mph fastball, and Carter is down 0 and 2. Hernandez whirls and fires to first, picking off Gonzalez. Then he strikes out Carter, swinging, with a nasty slider. Now here is Olerud, good enough to have chased .400 once. Hernandez freezes him with a full-count slider, and Olerud is gone.
Hernandez has been so dazzling that any plan the Marlins had to break him in slowly has all but crumbled. He has his own plan. "I'm here to get a spot in the rotation," the righthander says. Before a shaky six-run outing against the Cleveland Indians last Saturday, he had given up just one hit, struck out five and walked none in seven innings against major leaguers.
"He's making the decision [to start him in the minors] tougher and tougher," says Florida manager Rene Lachemann. "He can throw all four pitches for strikes. He showed us he can pick off a man, he showed us control. There's not a whole lot else."
There is, though, more to Hernandez's progress than mere pitching. When he bolted the Cuban national team last September, during a training session in Monterrey, Mexico, Hernandez sent the strange relationship between Major League Baseball and Cuban players hurtling in a new direction. Fresh off a salary of $5 a month, the kid considered the spearhead of a new generation of Cuban greats, the latest hero from one of the island's premier baseball families, sparked an unprecedented bidding war among big league clubs before signing a four-year, $4.5 million contract with the Marlins that includes an additional $1.5 million in incentives and a $2.5 million signing bonus. Even more crucial to both his old and new leagues: Hernandez's route to the majors—engineered for Livan and three other defectors by guerrilla agent Joe Cubas of Miami—has made it easier than ever for a Cuban player to cash in on his talent.
Hernandez doesn't like speaking about his defection. He refuses to talk politics; he has good and delicate reasons. His mother, Miriam Carreras, remains in Cuba, and Livan wants to bring her north someday. And his half-brother, 27-year-old Orlando, is a pitcher for the mighty national team, which their father, Arnaldo, also played for. When baseball people discuss Livan, they dwell on how composed he is, how he pitches like a man much older. That's because, especially over the last two years, Orlando never took his eyes off him. "Whatever I came here with, my brother taught me—mechanics, location, how to approach the game, how to use the wrist," Livan says. "My brother taught me everything I know."
Orlando Hernandez, nicknamed El Duque (the Duke), doesn't look much like the wide-bodied Livan. He is rangier, with a high kick swiped from a Dwight Gooden video. "There are guys in Cuba who are more fluid than he is, but the Duke always gets the job done," says Omar Minaya, a director of scouting for the Texas Rangers. "He's one of the best competitors I've known."