The mystery man was tall and lean and he was smiling, perpetually smiling. His life had dramatically changed when he left Cuba in a fishing boat, and it was about to change again. Every day featured more changes, more smiles and more glimpses of the pitcher known as El Duque.
That was the scene on a sunny spring training day when Orlando Hernández first pitched in front of the Yankees. After fleeing Cuba on the day after Christmas in 1997, he took a dangerous and circuitous route to signing a four-year, $6.6 million contr act with the Yankees. Now Hernández was finally on a mound in Tampa in late March of 1998, surrounded by curious Yankees coaches and executives who were eager to see him pitch.
He tossed a baseball softly and confidently, the ball snapping off his fingertips and popping into the catcher’s mitt. There was an ease and a swagger about Hernández, a recognition that all eyes were on him and a realization that he adored the attention. than a year of not playing baseball, he was finally pitching again.
On that day in Tampa, the real El Duque antics started when he pitched from a windup and unveiled a funky motion that was different from any that the attendees had ever seen. His eyes looked menacing as he held his glove in front of his face, but it was his limber and acrobatic leg kick that made him so distinctive. He lifted his left leg and it climbed higher and higher, his knee almost brushing his chin, and then he peered to the side before reconnecting with the target and powering forward to fire a pitch. It was athletic. It was balletic. It was gorgeous.
“He showed up for this bullpen session in Tampa and he just had this presence about him like he was Michael Jordan,” said General Manager Brian Cashman. “There was something projecting from him, a presence that you could feel. It was greatness. He wasn’t cocky, but there was something about him.”
Hernández did not have a single major league inning on his résumé, but Cashman saw a similar ultracompetitive nature between the pitcher and Jordan.
“I feel like when you’re around successful people, they emit an aura about them,” Cashman said. “And, before El Duque knew what he could do around here, he was emitting that aura. He had a presence.”
Cashman wasn’t alone in instantly noticing Hernández’s presence, his confidence and his talents. He was so excited to pitch again, so excited to be a Yankee and, honestly, was probably excited to show off. He had been the king of the mound in Cuba, a baseball-obsessed country where he had a gaudy 129-47 record for Havana’s Industriales, who are Cuba’s version of the Yankees.
As I watched El Duque, on and off the field, I eventually realized there was no one like him. He was daring and proud and focused and captivating. While working on my book “The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever,” there were constant reminders that Hernández was the most fascinating player on that historic team. I devoted a chapter to him and called it “International Man of Mystery” because he made an already great team even more imposing, because he was a very savvy and gutsy pitcher and because he was a joy to observe.
“Couldn’t stop watching him,” said David Cone, another Yankees pitcher known for his creativity. “Wanted to see what he did next.”
How could El Duque pitch so effectively with a leg kick that would make a Rockette proud? How many arm angles did he use? How many pitches did he throw? The questions hovered over Hernández, and he answered them all emphatically while going 12-4 with a 3.13 earned run average. Then he won the Yankees’ most important game of the season in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
He was immune to pressure.
“I don’t think anybody has written the right movie script for this guy,” said catcher Jorge Posada. “There’s no way to really tell his story and what he had to go through to get here and pitch for the Yankees. That’s just a movie waiting to happen. It was unbelievable.”
Covering Hernández in 1998 was highly entertaining, a delightful show every time he stared at a batter. He was just different. Even the way he prepared for games was different. Before he picked up a baseball, he would do wind sprints, leg kicks and Calisthenics in the outfield, making other pitchers look like weekend warriors.
Most pitchers don’t speak to reporters before starts, but Hernández was chatty. Before his fifth start, he casually told reporters that Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader and a man he reviled, would very likely watch him pitch against the Mets, and he added, “He knows everything.” After talking and talking, Hernández proceeded to throw 141 pitches across eight innings. And he wanted to keep pitching.
“In Cuba, you don’t have a relief pitcher every time out,” Hernández said. “In Cuba, it’s win or die.”
The teammate with the best perspective on Hernández was Posada, who was as headstrong as the pitcher he caught. Of Hernández’s 23 starts in the regular season and postseason in 1998, Posada caught 21 of them. All these years later, he searched for the optimal way to describe El Duque.
“He was just perfection,” Posada said. “He was so — well, perfection is a word, but I’m not sure it’s the word I’m looking for. He wasn’t nervous. He went through hell and now he’s living his childhood dream. He was just saying: ‘I’m here. This is the best time of my life and I’m not going to take anything for granted.’ Yeah, I guess perfection is the word I wanted to use. “
In the emotional and feisty Posada, the Yankees had the ideal catcher to handle Hernández. Posada respected Hernández and felt an immediate kinship with him because Posada’s father had also defective from Cuba in 1968.
“I told him all about my dad and, of course, it brought us closer,” Posada said.
Hernández called Posada “a brother for me then and a brother for me today,” and they were part of a very tight-knit Yankees’ team. After a tumultuous 1-4 start in which Manager Joe Torre and Cashman wondered about their job security , the Yankees cruised through an idyllic season. Pressure? What pressure? The Yankees kept winning, so there was little stress. Until Game 4 of the ALCS Until they trailed the Indians two games to one in a best-of-seven series.
“It was really the first time all year that we were worried,” said outfielder Paul O’Neill.
Enter El Duque, an unflappable pitcher who treated the pressure-packed game the same as any other start. On the morning of Game 4, Torre was eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant when he noticed a familiar figure cleaning plates and silverware from tables to help the overtaxed staff. That helper was Hernández, who was as careful as a pitcher could be.
“He wasn’t afraid of a thing,” said Derek Jeter. “And, if you think about it, he was the perfect guy for that game.”
Since Hernández had not pitched in 15 days, it was important for him to navigate through the first inning and find the feel for his pitches. But a single and a walk put two runners on base for Jim Thome, who had blasted two homers in Game 3. And Thome almost went deep again as he drove Hernández’s changeup to right field, but O’Neill caught it in front of the fence for the third out. The Yankees exhaled. Then the game became the El Duque Show as he pitched seven scoreless innings in a 4-0 win.
It is not hyperbole to say that Hernández rescued the Yankees. Had the Yankees faltered, they would have been one loss away from elimination, and the pressure would have been insufferable. The incessant question would have been: Could the team that won 114 regular season games flop? With all that the Yankees had accomplished, that would have been a crisis they had not faced all season. Instead, El Duque guided the Yankees.
“I had pressure,” Hernández said. “But I had no fear.”
El Duque gave the Yankees much more than one win that tied the series. In the relieved clubhouse, it was evident that Hernández had also given the Yankees their swagger back. For 48 tense hours, the Yankees were an uncomfortable bunch who wondered if their remarkable ride was about to end. It didn’t. It didn’t because of El Duque, the most compelling character in my book and the most fascinating player on the greatest team ever.
Jack Curry’s new book, “The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever,” was released on May 2.