• Sal Maiorana

El Duque makes a dazzling debut

NEW YORK (June 3, 1998) – We’ve all heard the story about the dog that ate the homework. In fact, we’ve probably all used that excuse a time or two in our lives.

Well, this is the story of the dog that ate David Cone’s right index finger, which prompted the Yankees to call up the mysterious Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez from Triple-A Columbus to take Cone’s spot in the rotation for a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The rest, as they say, is history.

Hernandez – who had defected from Cuba barely five months earlier and signed with the Yankees on March 7 – launched what became a superb major-league career as he pitched seven strong innings in New York’s 7-1 victory at Yankee Stadium.

“I’d be starting if it was the last week of the season,” Cone said before the game, laughing off the bite from his mother’s Jack Russell terrier named Veronica. “I’d be putting Krazy Glue on my index finger or something. But we’re all excited for El Duque. Everybody’s anxious to see him.” What they saw was so impressive that off this one performance Hernandez was given a full-time spot in the Yankees rotation, one he did not relinquish until he was traded to the Chicago White Sox before the 2005 season. Hernandez’s journey to America and the Yankees has been well-documented, and even though the details were a bit exaggerated at first and later amended, it remains one of baseball’s true success stories. His younger half-brother, Livan, had defected from Cuba during a tournament in Monterrey, Mexico in 1996 and he went on to help lead the Florida Marlins to the World Series championship in 1997. El Duque had a chance to defect with Livan but declined because he had two young daughters that would not have been able to come with him. Despite his baseball celebrity, Cuban officials banned El Duque from playing for the national team as punishment, believing he had helped to orchestrate the defections of his brother and other players. Soon, he was stripped of his off-field job and became the target of harassment in his homeland. Knowing his life probably wasn’t going to improve, and realizing his chances of pursuing his dream of playing baseball in America were dwindling because despite reports that he was 28 years old he was actually 32, Hernandez knew the time had come to defect. ‘‘We were being humiliated in the country because they wanted us to pay for the deception of others,’’ Hernandez told reporters. ‘‘The police would call my house and tell me that I was nobody and that I would never play baseball in Cuba again. Our families were receiving offenses on the street. They forced us to make this decision, which was very risky, but it was the right one for us. We are just looking for the human rights, and we’re in search of freedom. We want the liberty that God gave us to be treated like people. That’s why we left.’’ The accounts of Hernandez’s journey have always been shrouded in mystery. Originally, it was believed that he and seven others – including his girlfriend and another ballplayer named Alberto Hernandez who was not a relation – left Cuba on a rickety sailboat the day after Christmas in 1997. The Washington Post later learned it was actually a 30-foot boat with a 480-horsepower engine. It was also believed that he and the others never made it to Florida because they became stranded on a small strip of land in the Bahamas and subsisted for four days on shellfish before being rescued by the United States Coast Guard. It turns out that may have been a pre-ordained landing spot. However it all went down, ultimately we know this to be true: Hernandez, his girlfriend, and the other ballplayer were cleared by the State Department to come to the U.S. because it was determined they had been deprived of their livelihoods in Cuba. The others were treated as refugees and sent back to Cuba. Hernandez, with the assist of Cuban-born and Miami-based sports agent Joe Cubas, headed to Costa Rica rather than the U.S. because had he come straight to America he would have been subject to a special supplemental draft where any team could have selected him. By going to Costa Rica, he would be free to negotiate with teams of his choosing as a free agent. Following a tryout camp attended by several teams, the Yankees outbid the others and signed him to a four-year, $6.6 million contract, then procured his visa to the U.S. At first, Hernandez was considered the backup plan on two fronts. Cone was coming off shoulder surgery and Hideki Irabu, the big-money Japanese free agent signed in 1997, had struggled to adapt to Major League Baseball. If Cone got hurt, or Irabu got lit up, the Yankees had El Duque waiting in the wings. “He’s an interesting story and we paid him a lot of money, but we are low-keying this,” general manager Brian Cashman said during the spring. “We have said all along we signed him for 1999 and beyond and if we got something from him this year, fine.” Well, thanks to a dog bite, the timetable was altered, and they got plenty from Hernandez in 1998. The right-hander with the funky high-kick delivery had started the year at Class-A Tampa, then jumped up to Columbus where he toyed with the International League. He went 6-0 with a 3.83 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings, leaving no doubt that he was ready. “It was very emotional due to the fact so many years had gone by since I pitched in front of so many fans, and it was my first game at the major-league level,” he said after stifling the Devil Rays. He allowed only five hits, one of which was a solo homer by Fred McGriff, walked two and struck out seven on 116 pitches. With Scott Brosius delivering a two-run single in the fourth and a two-run double in the seventh, Hernandez cruised to the victory which improved the Yankees record to 40-13. “He showed a lot of poise,” said Bernie Williams. “Whenever he got into trouble – and he hardly got into any – he stayed right there.” With Derek Jeter suffering an abdominal injury in the game, he was placed on the disabled list the next day, and it was that move that allowed Hernandez to remain on the roster. By the time Jeter returned, Hernandez was a full-fledged Yankee, having pitched a complete game four-hitter against Montreal and throwing 7 2/3 solid innings in a victory over Cleveland.

NEXT POST on July 25: David Cone goes on a strikeout rampage.