Notable Story of the Year, Best American Sports Writing, 1999
After El Duque made his dramatic ocean escape from Cuba, I went to find him in Columbus, Ohio, where he was playing in the New York Yankees minor league system. I spent several weeks with him on the road and was with him the night he made his debut in Yankee Stadium. This is probably my favorite magazine story I've ever done, a profile of a man who so embodied the country he fled, he couldn't escape it.
**To read the full article, please sign up for the email list on the Contact page, and send a request for the article...**
The Award-winning profile of Cuban pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez
From the premiere issue of Gear
The Chosen One
Castro Made Him an Outcast and New York Is Rejoicing.
Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez Is the Cuban Missile That Struck at the Heart of America.
By Julian Rubinstein
He is driving now, down some anonymous, twisting four-lane highway in suburban Columbus, Ohio, unconcerned about his lack of familiarity with the byways of his temporary home. There are only so many ways to really get lost, El Duque Hernandez has learned. This is one: salsa music blaring, filling the smallish compartment of his rented apple-red Hyundai with the lively sounds of guitars, castanets, maracas, bongos and a chorus of voices, his own included, singing in Spanish.
He thumps the dashboard with his large hands and waves his arms above his head, palms to the sky, as if he’s in a nightclub. Tienes que estar arribe de la bola, arribe de la bola, arribe de la bo-la. (You’ve got to stay on top of the ball, on top of the ball, on top of the ball.)
Spying his favorite American restaurant, Denny’s, the best pitcher in Cuban baseball history pulls into the parking lot, pausing to let the song finish before turning off the ignition. Then, gesturing with his famous right arm, he says with a smile that defines him, “Inside this car, is Cuba.”
But the notion that Orlando ‘El Duque’ Hernandez’s homeland has become merely a festive figment of his imagination is itself a grand illusion. El Duque’s Cuba has never been more real to him—or even more inescapable—than it was last December when he didn’t know if he would ever get out.
Syracuse, New York. Late May, dusk. He is kicking the reddish dirt on the pitchers mound in suburban, P&C Stadium, annoyed by his inability to focus. He’s just given up two hits in this second inning of his fifth start for the Columbus Clippers, the Triple A affiliate of the New York Yankees, for whom he has gone 4-0 thus far. The Yankees signed El Duque to a four-year, $6.6 million contract in March after watching him toss just five innings of exhibition ball arranged by his agent on the neutral turf of San Juan, Costa Rica against a group of virtual scrubs.
His stellar 129-47 record for the Cuban national team (a nonpareil winning percentage of .733), and his reputation as Cuba’s ace—The Duke—was enough for even George Steinbrenner to agree to overlook the fact that he hadn’t played in over a year and his professed age of 28 was not only unverifiable but was as much as four years younger than many believed.
It has been a difficult day. At noon, Duque got a call with the news he had been dreading. Three Cuban ballplayers and a coach—friends of his—who had defected by boat in March and were being held in the detention center in Nassau where he had been in December, were being sent back to Cuba by the Bahamian government. He’s been trying to push the thought of them out of his mind. But now, in the stands behind the first base line, an entire section of Cuban immigrants are banging bongo drums and cowbells and chanting, El Doookay, Pon-chal-o! El Doookay, Pon-chal-o! (Strike him out!)
Full count, runners on first and second and one out and he’s thinking of the stadium in Havana, Estadio Latinoamericano, where the fans used to chant his name the same way and every game he pitched sold out until …. fastball, crack, single up the middle, one run scores. He is kicking the dirt again, cursing himself. Oscar Acola, the Clippers pitching coach trots out to the mound to check on him. Yes, he’s fine. Yes, he’s sure. What he doesn’t say: What will become of my former teammates who were sent back?
He runs another count full, runners still on the corners, one out. The Cubans are banging and shouting, Ponchalo! He hangs a curve ball high but gets lucky. It’s a chopper up the middle and the shortstop makes a good play and is able to turn two. Inning over. El Duque stomps back to the dugout, slams his glove down on the bench. Enough. If he can win four Cuban championships, prevail before hostile crowds in stadiums all over the world and, well, survive a 10-hour trip across the Atlantic crouched with five others in the hold of a small boat, he can overcome the Syracuse Sky Chiefs.
When he trots back out to the mound for the third inning, he looks possessed, a nasty scowl draped across his face. With no one on base now, he can use his full windup, a short swivel followed by a distinctive, jerking, ultra high leg kick that brings his left knee almost to his ear, then a long, smooth follow through. Without seeming as if he’s breathing, he strikes out the side with an array of curve balls and off-speed pitches that he has the rare ability to throw from a variety of arm angles, making his pitches so difficult to read that the batters swipe so far ahead or behind the ball it’s cartoonlike.
The Cuban fans are in a frenzy now, dancing while they chant. A group of middle-aged Syracuse fans retaliate by shouting, USA, USA, to no avail. At one point, exasperated, they begin chanting, Taco Bell! The Cubans don’t react to this. They continue, Dejalo que te conoscan! (Let’s get going so they can get to know you.) But it seems apparent that most of the 6,822 assembled here, to say nothing of the thousands of baseball nuts who await him 250 miles south in New York City, already do. After the game, after Duque has added five more strikeouts to his leapfrogging tally and another win to his undefeated record, he is besieged. A throng of people clamber into the seats behind first base, parents holding children in Yankees hats, men and women holding balls and programs, calling out to him ‘El Duque, good luck in the Bronx, El Duque’. He signs for every last person, explaining his extraordinary patience later by saying only, “I must. I must.”
Two hours later, he has gotten as far as the unlit parking lot where the Cubans have set up their drums in a circle around him and are singing and dancing. Tenemos tristes recuerdeos de nuestro pais pero lo tenemos dentro de nuestro corazon. (We have sad memories of our country but we keep them in our hearts.) El Duque is taking pictures with his own camera so that he can send them to home to his mother, Marta, and to his daughters, Yahumara, seven, and Steffi, two. Meanwhile, word is already spreading: El Duque won again. To George Steinbrenner in New York, to the huge Cuban population in Miami and even to Cuba, where by tomorrow, old men and children in Havana’s Parque Central will be discussing el Duque’s progress toward the big leagues.
If Orlando Hernandez was a hero to Cubans before, he is an icon now, a living breathing symbol of defiance, a pitcher of immense talent who struck out Castro looking. How he did it is a wonder, considering the surveillance he was under at home. His success, not only in making it out of Cuba alive but also in becoming a multi-millionaire with the storied New York Yankees after having been banished from the game back home, is the most embarrassing in-your-face anyone has given Castro in years.
More than 30 Cuban ballplayers have defected since pitcher Rene Arrocha, formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals, did it in 1991. None have had the pedigree of El Duque. None had a father who was also a famous Cuban pitcher, the original El Duque, nicknamed so because of his penchant for dressing, and pitching, in winning fashion. None had been the number one arm on Cuba’s national team through a decade of unprecedented domination of international play —10 years without a loss in international competition. “He was like Nolan Ryan,” says Francisco Santiesteban, who was El Duque’s catcher for most of the 1990′s, who defected last year. “It was an honor to play with him.”
No one but Duque had a brother who defected and went on to accomplish the dream of every boy in Cuba, becoming, as Livan Hernandez did last year as a pitcher for the Florida Marlins, the MVP of the World Series. None before Duque were banned from playing as a preemptive action, ensuring he could never escape like Livan or the others had, safely on land, during team trips to tournaments abroad. And none had the willingness—or as big a platform to stand on—to speak out against Castro once they reached freedom. “When Livan defected, everybody was waiting for him to make a statement but Livan said he didn’t want to talk about politics,” says Ninosca Perez, whose Miami-based radio show ‘Ninosca a la una’, is a sounding board for Cubans in Miami and is picked up by thousands of listeners on jerryrigged devices 90 miles south in Cuba. “With El Duque, from the beginning, he spoke out against Castro and the Cuban government and gave a voice to a lot of people.”
Safely tucked into a booth at Denny’s, El Duque orders the all-American Slam, and a large orange juice. As another waitress stops to fill a cup of coffee on the table, he says, “That’s why I never order coffee. Just when you’re so happy you’ve put just the right amount of milk and sugar in and you’re really enjoying it, they have to ruin it for you by filling it up.”
He misses Cuba. “Without any Fidel, Cuba would be a good place to live,” he says. “When this guy falls, I’m going to buy a hotel, maybe the Marazul (10 miles east of Havana). The women on the beach are so stunning. What a good hotel it is.”
He is leaning back now, his long, wing-like arms outstretched on either side of the booth, allowing himself a rare reminiscence. Slowly, he breaks into a smile that could melt the ice in any diplomatic scuttle. It spreads as wide as his soft, whiskerless face, his lips opening just the right amount to make his watery hazel eyes twinkle in the fluorescent light. It is a smile that will stay with you forever, a gift. As if he knows this, he will show it to you again and again, night or day, sad or tired as he may be. He’s had lots of practice. He’s a giving person and for years that was all he ever had.
Reaching now for his half-full glass of juice, he sums up his thoughts with an evocative phrase, Para comer y para llevarte. Literally, to eat and to take away. Then, almost apologetically, he adds, “Why should I lie to you? I miss even the hardships.”
He grew up, like many kids in Havana, sleeping on the floor of a two-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother—a government typist—his younger brother Gerardo and his grandparents. (Livan grew up 180 miles east in Villa Clara with his mother and Duque’s father.) Shoes and underwear were luxuries Duque did not know as a small child. And Cuba’s economy has gotten worse since Russia stopped sending $500 million in annual aid it had donated during its communist heyday. The average wage, 200 pesos a month or about $10, is no longer enough for food and necessities.
Even baseball players, the country’s heroes, draw their salaries from mandatory day jobs for which they receive about $14 per month. There are no endorsement deals or autograph shows. They ride old single-speed bicycles or public buses to the stadium, where on a good night the lights don’t go out before the game ends.
To make even a modest living, most Cubans have to find other ways to make money at the risk of government sanction—selling ice-cream out of your kitchen or, if you’re lucky enough to have access to a car, working as a cab driver, the way El Duque used to, even in the prime of his playing days, ferrying tourists around the city in a vintage 1970′s Russian-built Lada for loose change. He didn’t mind. There was something uplifting about the shared struggles, the hunts for a neighbor with a working phone; the dinners at the paladares, the popular but often illegally-operated restaurants run out of people’s homes.
He had plenty of opportunities to defect. He was in the hotel room with Livan the night he fled in Monterrey, Mexico in October, 1995. Livan asked him to come, but Duque said no, he could not leave his daughters. The brothers sobbed as Livan fled in a waiting car driven by sports agent Joe Cubas. Cubas had also briefed Duque on the untold millions he could fetch in America—more, he said, than Livan, who signed a four-year, $4.5 million deal with the Marlins. Duque’s response was non-negotiable: he’d rather have 10 million fans screaming for him inside Estadio Latinoamericano than $10 million. “I was never a Cuban who was trying to hide the sun behind a finger,” Duque explains. “I knew the truth about communism. But my life was normal. I had my rights. Then they suspended me for life, brother.” He drifts from his native tongue to say the word ‘brother’ in English.
This was never about money, which is why Duque is so enraged about Castro’s New Year’s Eve address, five days after he defected, in which Castro referred to him as a ‘mercenary’. It was why he considered firing the hard-nosed Cubas when he was dragging out the free agent bidding process, trying to build a movie deal into an offer from the California Angles, who are owned by Disney. “He called me from Costa Rica very upset and said, ‘I’m giving [Cubas] 48 hours’,” says Gerardo Capo, a Cuban-American land developer who visited and befriended Duque at the Bahamas detention center. “He said, ‘I don’t care about a movie deal or the money. I just want to play baseball again’.”
He got his wish—but for a steep price. As far as he is from Cuba, it is not distant enough to prevent the tears for his former teammates, sent back to the island and on the verge of imprisonment, having been told they would get 15 years if they were seen within 10 blocks of a baseball stadium. Almost daily, he faces the unpleasantness of having to talk to his daughters by phone, avoiding the little one when she asks, ‘Daddy will you come pick me up tomorrow?’ Feels so guilty he isn’t there that he begins buying her birthday presents – candy, balloons, shoes – three months early, which he will arrange to have sent to her through an American friend, while wondering if he will ever see them again. Despite what you know about baseball and free agency, make no mistake: For El Duque Hernandez, this move was a straight trade, one that will take a lot longer than his check to clear before he knows exactly what he got in the deal.
Duque’s troubles began in July, 1996, when he was escorted from the field during a practice by two plain-clothed government officials and interrogated for 12 hours in his uniform
**To read the full article, please sign up for the email list on the Contact page, and send a request for the article…**