The mysterious man was tall, thin, and always smiling. His life changed dramatically when he left Cuba on a fishing boat. Each day brought more change, more smiles, and a glimpse of the pitcher known as El Duque.
It was the scene of Orlando Hernandez’s first pitch in front of the Yankees on a sunny spring training day. After fleeing Cuba the day after Christmas 1997, he took a dangerous and detour to sign his four-year, $6.6 million contract with the Yankees. In late March 1998, Hernández finally took the mound in Tampa, surrounded by curious Yankees coaches and executives eager to see him pitch.
He threw the baseball softly and confidently. There was a sense of comfort and confidence about Hernández, realizing that all eyes were on him and realizing that he was the center of attention. resumed pitching.
The real El Duque antics began that day in Tampa when he pitched from a windup and performed funky moves that the participants had never seen before. His eyes with his gloves in front of his face looked menacing, but what made him so distinctive was his lithe, acrobatic leg kicks. As he lifted his left leg, his knee nearly touching his chin, he turned to the side to reconnect with the target and force forward to launch the pitch. It was athletic. It was ballet. It was gorgeous.
“He showed up at the bullpen session in Tampa and was just like Michael Jordan,” said general manager Brian Cashman. “There was something sticking out of him, a presence you could feel. It was great. He wasn’t cocky, but there was something about him.”
Hernández’s resume did not record a single inning in the major leagues, but Cashman confirmed a similar hyper-competitive nature between the pitcher and Jordan.
“When you’re around successful people, you feel like you’re giving off an aura,” says Cashman. “And El Duque was giving off that aura before we realized what it could do here. It had a presence.”
Cashman wasn’t the only one who instantly recognized Hernandez’s presence, confidence and talent. He was so excited to pitch again. He was so excited to be a Yankee. He was the reigning champion of the Cuban mound, and with the Industrials of Havana, the Cuban Yankees, he had a spectacular record of 129-47.
As I watched El Duque on and off the field, I realized there was no one quite like him. He was bold, proud, focused, and charming.while working my book “The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever” was a constant reminder that Hernandez was the most compelling player on that historic team. I gave him a chapter and called it “International Man of Mystery” because he made an already great team even more impressive.
“I couldn’t stop watching him,” said David Cohn, another Yankees pitcher known for his creativity. “I wanted to see what he did next.”
What made El Duque so effective with a leg kick that would make the Rockets proud? How many arm angles did he use? How many pitches did he throw? Questions flew at Hernández, and he answered them all strongly with his 12-4 record and 3.13 ERA. He then won the most important game of the season for the Yankees in Game 4 of his series in the American League.
He was immune to pressure.
Catcher Jorge Posada said, “I don’t think anyone has written the right movie script for this guy.” There’s no way to really tell if it didn’t.It’s a movie waiting to happen.
The 1998 coverage of Hernández was very interesting, and it was a fun show to watch the hitters. he was just different. He also prepared differently for the match. Before he started playing baseball, he would windsprint, kick, and do gymnastics in the outfield to make other pitchers look like weekend warriors.
Most pitchers don’t talk to reporters before the start, but Hernández was talkative. Before his fifth start, he casually told reporters that Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader and the person he cursed, could see him pitch against the Mets. Very high, he added, adding, “He knows everything.” After continuing to speak, Hernández threw 141 pitches in eight innings. And he wanted to keep pitching.
“In Cuba, you don’t have a relief pitcher every time,” Hernández said. “In Cuba, it’s win or die.”
The teammate who had the best perspective on Hernández was Posada. Of Hernandez’s 23 starts in the 1998 regular season and postseason, Posada caught 21 of them. Years later, he searched for the best way to describe El Duque.
“He was perfect,” said Posada. “He was — well, perfect is the word, but I don’t know if that’s the word I’m looking for. He wasn’t nervous. He’s been through hell and now So I’m living my childhood dream.He just said: “I’m here. This is the best time of my life. Yeah, I think the words I wanted to use are perfect.” increase.
An emotional and spirited Posada, the Yankees had the ideal catcher to handle Hernández. Posada respected Hernández, and since Posada’s father had also defected from Cuba in 1968, he felt an immediate kinship.
“I told him all about my father. Of course, it brought us closer,” Posada said.
Hernández called Posada “a brother to me then and a brother to me today” and they were part of a very close-knit Yankees team. After a tumultuous 1-4 start that left them questioning consistency, the Yankees sailed through an idyllic season. what pressure? The Yankees kept winning, so there was little stress. It was a best-of-seven series until Game 4 of the ALCS where he led the Indians 2–1.
“It’s really the first time this year that we’ve been worried,” outfielder Paul O’Neill said.
Enter El Duque, an unflappable pitcher who handled the high-pressure game like any other start. On the morning of Game 4, Torre was eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant when he noticed a familiar figure clearing plates and silverware from the table to help overworked staff. Her helper was Hernandez, who was as carefree as a pitcher.
“He was not afraid of anything,” said Derek Jeter. “And come to think of it, he was the perfect guy for the game.”
Hernández hadn’t pitched in 15 days, so it was important for him to navigate the first inning and find a feel for pitching. However, with a single and a walk, Jim Torme, who hit two homers in Game 3, had his two runners on base. And when Thome drove Hernandez’s changeup into right field, Thome almost went deep again, but O’Neal caught it in front of the fence. for the third out. The Yankees gasped. The game then became El Duque’s show as he pitched his 7th innings scoreless in his 4-0 victory.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Hernández saved the Yankees. The constant question was: Can a team with 114 wins in the regular season be a flop? Instead, El Duque led the Yankees.
“There was pressure,” Hernández said. “But I wasn’t scared.”
El Duque gave the Yankees at least one victory in a series tie. In a relieved clubhouse, it was also clear that Hernandez had regained confidence with the Yankees. In his tense 48 hours, the Yankees were an uncomfortable bunch. It wasn’t. It wasn’t because of El Duque, the most compelling character in my book and the most compelling player on the greatest team of all time.
Jack Curry’s new book, “1998 Yankees: The Story Behind the Greatest Baseball Team Ever” Released May 2nd.