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EL Duque
Tom Verducci
August 17, 1998
New York has fallen for Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernandez, the most charismatic of the majors' new wave of international stars
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August 17, 1998

El Duque

New York has fallen for Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernandez, the most charismatic of the majors' new wave of international stars

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Meanwhile, through Aug. 9, Wells (14-2) led the Yankees (and the majors) in winning percentage, Pettitte (13-6) had pitched the most innings, Irabu (10-5) had held batters to the lowest average (.218). To opponents, one day it's hemlock, the next it's lye.

There was a time when the best real and imagined out-of-nowhere baseball tales came from hamlets in the American heart-land. Now those stories come from an island country 200 miles southeast of Miami. El Duque is the Roy Hobbs of the 1990s.

That brings us to the other story of how he got to Hooters, the one that Cubas and a production company began peddling to major film studios recently. "In Hollywood they call it the pitch," says Cubas, who could do stand-in duty for Danny DeVito. "We're lining up Cuba Gooding Jr. as Orlando Hernandez and Antonio Banderas as Joe Cubas." In Hollywood they call it the stretch.

The 20-foot sailboat on which Hernandez; his 21-year-old girlfriend, Noris Bosch; and six companions supposedly fled Cuba the morning after last Christmas sounds more like a colander with every retelling of the tale, a game of telephone in which Hernandez no longer participates. "He said he won't answer any questions about his trip," says Leo Astacio of the Yankees, who serves as Hernandez's translator. "He said he's saving it for the movie."

As the legend of El Duque has it, the refugees spent 10 hours at sea before landing on an uninhabited cay in the Bahamas. Until the U.S. Coast Guard found them three or four days later, they lived off shellfish and the little water, stale bread and Spam they had brought from Cuba. The U.S. offered them visas on humanitarian grounds. Bosch gladly accepted; she now lives in Miami. (Hernandez's ex-wife raises their two daughters in Havana with his financial help, according to Orlando.) Hernandez, under Cubas's well-practiced guidance, chose a Costa Rican visa instead, lest he be subject to the major league draft and the mercy of only one team; he received offers from several clubs, including the Mets, the Reds, the Mariners and the Tigers, before signing a four-year deal with the Yankees that pays him $6.6 million.

"I remember changing planes in Miami after seeing him," says Yankees scout Lin Garrett of a Feb. 9 showcase in Costa Rica at which Hernandez worked out for representatives of about 20 teams. "A lot of [scouts] said they didn't like him. They said he didn't throw hard—he was 88 to 92 mph—they worried about his ability to get lefthanded hitters out, and they weren't sure how old he was. But there was more to this guy. He was taking ground balls at shortstop when a ball was hit foul into a parking lot, and he sprinted after it and ran back with it. Who does that? No, this was a special type of person. The radar gun wasn't going to tell you his story. That night I called up Mark Newman [New York's vice president of player development] and said, 'We've got to be in it. I don't care if he's 28 or 32 or whatever.' "

On his first day at spring training in Tampa, Hernandez, who insists he's 28, though some officials with other clubs believe that he could be as old as 32, sat in the clubhouse and stared with such intensity at the mundane props of big league life that the moment still lingers with Cone. "From the gloves and shoes piled up in the lockers, to the food spread, to the trainer's room," says Cone, "you could see he was amazed."

Says Hernandez, "That's true. But the next thought I had was of the national team players in Cuba. I started thinking, Why can't they have all that? They are also great players and great people. In Cuba they give you one pair of spikes. You take what they give you, and that's that."

The Yankees had figured El Duque might spend all year in Triple A. He had not pitched for 1½ years after being banned in 1996 from the Cuban team, essentially as punishment for the 1995 defection of Livan. "I always believed I would pitch again someday," he says. "But I didn't think I would be in the big leagues this early. I dreamed this. But I'm not a fortune-teller. I also dreamed I would be president."

Hernandez earned his promotion by ripping through the minors with 74 strikeouts in 5⅓ innings. Major league righthanders, who were batting .144 against him as of Aug. 9, have no more of a chance against El Duque than does a bowl of wings. He has trouble with lefthanded hitters, which may relegate him to specialty relief in the postseason. The Anaheim Angels' left-handed batters, for instance, ripped him on July 29 for nine hits in 13 at bats in the worst of his 12 starts, a 10-5 defeat. But he came back to throw a three-hitter against the Oakland A's five days later.

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