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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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Hernandez pitches with a balletic leg kick in which he jerks his knee chin-high, a move he learned at 18 to keep his left shoulder pointed toward his target. Before he was banned in Cuba, he says, his kick was even higher and his lethal slider even sharper. With that funky delivery and the way he changes the speed of his pitches and the angle of his arm upon releasing them, Hernandez is a master of deception. His greatest challenge will occur when the novelty wears off. Cleveland, the only team to face him twice, tagged him for nine hits and four runs in 6⅔ innings the second time around.

"I could understand the questions people had about his age," says Omar Minaya, the New York Mets' assistant general manager who scouted El Duque. "I had my doubts after the layoff how quickly he would be an effective major league pitcher. But for anybody who questioned him then to still question him now, I'm sorry, I would seriously question that person's business in this game. El Duque's on a great team. But he could be a .500 pitcher and I'd still want him pitching in a big game. He's a warrior."

On July 22 against the Detroit Tigers, Hernandez balked home a run with one out in the third inning, narrowing the New York lead to 5-2. Hernandez blew up at umpire John Shulock and then at Yankees catcher Jorge Posada for intervening. To borrow one of El Duque's favorite English phrases, no problem. He composed himself, got two pop-ups to end the threat and shut out Detroit for three more innings before departing with a win in hand. "If the sharks didn't distract me," he says, alluding to the man-eaters he and his seven comrades are said to have encountered during their escape, "nothing that can happen on a baseball field will."

He's learning about American baseball customs, such as pitch counts and bullpens. "In Cuba, you pitch until you the," he says. "When you can't pitch with your arm, you go with your heart." The first time Torre came out to remove him from a game, Hernandez had no idea what was happening. "I had to pry his glove open and take the ball out myself," Torre says.

After the Yankees exhausted their bullpen in a 17-inning loss on July 20 in the first game of a home doubleheader against the Tigers, Hernandez brought his spikes into the dugout before the second game and, in front of Torre, pointed to the bullpen, ready for volunteer work even though he was scheduled to start in two days. "I've never heard one complaint out of him," Torre says, "except about the traffic."

Hernandez has learned to take the subway from his midtown hotel to the Bronx, though not on the return trip. It was almost two o'clock in the morning after the Detroit doubleheader when he started for the subway station. Two police officers advised him against it. Hernandez insisted he was too tired to wait for a car service and kept walking. The policemen eventually put him in a squad car and gave him a lift home.

Otherwise, Hernandez negotiates life in New York splendidly, at ease among its large Spanish-speaking population. The crew at his favorite coffee shop stopped work recently to take a picture with him and offered him "anything you want, anything." Said Hernandez, "As long as you don't run out of raisin Danish, I'll be back." When one of those notorious Times Square electronics stores tried to charge him $85 for a leather case for his cell phone, Hernandez negotiated the price down to $21 plus a couple of Yankees tickets. "But you," he said, pointing to the most ruthless salesman, "are not going." He stops to chat at his dry cleaners even when he has nothing to drop off.

El Duque loves New York and New York loves El Duque, but his bitterness toward Cuba is obvious. He came here for la libertad, he says—"freedom to travel, freedom to speak one's mind without fear of retribution." He is especially jazzed about pitching on ESPN, because he knows Fidel Castro often tunes in, "and I hope he watches me and is pulling the hair out of his beard."

More than an hour after an afternoon game against the Chicago White Sox on July 25, when Yankee Stadium was bathed by the last faint streaks of daylight, Hernandez ran sprints in the outfield, alone in the historic ballpark, the huge place quiet except for the whir and click of sprinklers watering the field. Never was he more free.

"When I lay my head down at night," he says, "I always think about what I should do the next day. Once in a while I speak with my pillow. It always has good advice for me. The best place to turn to is the pillow."

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