The thriller man was tall and lean and he was smiling, perpetually smiling. His life had dramatically modified when he left Cuba in a fishing boat, and it was about to alter once more. Every day featured extra modifications, extra smiles and extra glimpses of the pitcher often called El Duque.
That was the scene on a sunny spring coaching day when Orlando Hernández first pitched in entrance of the Yankees. After fleeing Cuba on the day after Christmas in 1997, he took a harmful and circuitous path to signing a four-year, $6.6 million contract with the Yankees. Now Hernández was lastly on a mound in Tampa in late March of 1998, surrounded by curious Yankees coaches and executives who have been desirous 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 each one eyes have been on him and a realization that he adored the eye. After greater than a 12 months of not enjoying baseball, he was lastly pitching once more.
On that day in Tampa, the true El Duque antics began when he pitched from a windup and unveiled a cool movement that was completely different from any that the attendees had ever seen. His eyes seemed menacing as he held his glove in entrance of his face, however it was his limber and acrobatic leg kick that made him so distinctive. He lifted his left leg and it climbed greater and better, his knee virtually brushing his chin, after which he peered to the aspect earlier than reconnecting with the goal and powering ahead to fireside a pitch. It was athletic. It was balletic. It was beautiful.
“He showed up for this bullpen session in Tampa and he just had this presence about him like he was Michael Jordan,” mentioned 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 didn’t have a single main league inning on his résumé, however Cashman noticed an analogous ultracompetitive nature between the pitcher and Jordan.
“I feel like when you’re around successful people, they emit an aura about them,” Cashman mentioned. “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 immediately noticing Hernández’s presence, his confidence and his abilities. He was so excited to pitch once more, so excited to be a Yankee and, actually, was in all probability excited to point out off. He had been the king of the mound in Cuba, a baseball-obsessed nation the place he had a gaudy 129-47 file for Havana’s Industriales, who’re Cuba’s model of the Yankees.
As I watched El Duque, on and off the sphere, I ultimately realized there was nobody like him. He was daring and proud and centered and charming. While engaged on my book “The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever,” there have been fixed reminders that Hernández was probably the most fascinating participant on that historic crew. I devoted a chapter to him and known as it “International Man of Mystery” as a result of he made an already nice crew much more imposing, as a result of he was a really savvy and gutsy pitcher and since he was a pleasure to look at.
“Couldn’t stop watching him,” mentioned David Cone, one other Yankees pitcher identified for his creativity. “Wanted to see what he did next.”
How may El Duque pitch so successfully with a leg kick that may 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 all of them emphatically whereas going 12-4 with a 3.13 earned run common. Then he gained the Yankees’ most essential sport of the season in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
He was resistant to strain.
“I don’t think anybody has written the right movie script for this guy,” mentioned 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 extremely entertaining, a pleasant present each time he stared at a batter. He was simply completely different. Even the way in which he ready for video games was completely different. Before he picked up a baseball, he would do wind sprints, leg kicks and calisthenics within the outfield, making different pitchers appear like weekend warriors.
Most pitchers don’t communicate to reporters earlier than begins, however Hernández was chatty. Before his fifth begin, he casually advised reporters that Fidel Castro, the Cuban chief and a person he reviled, would very seemingly watch him pitch in opposition to the Mets, and he added, “He knows everything.” After speaking and speaking, Hernández proceeded to throw 141 pitches throughout eight innings. And he needed to maintain pitching.
“In Cuba, you don’t have a relief pitcher every time out,” Hernández mentioned. “In Cuba, it’s win or die.”
The teammate with the perfect perspective on Hernández was Posada, who was as headstrong because the pitcher he caught. Of Hernández’s 23 begins within the common season and postseason in 1998, Posada caught 21 of them. All these years later, he looked for the optimum strategy to describe El Duque.
“He was just perfection,” Posada mentioned. “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 best catcher to deal with Hernández. Posada revered Hernández and felt a direct kinship with him as a result of Posada’s father had additionally defected from Cuba in 1968.
“I told him all about my dad and, of course, it brought us closer,” Posada mentioned.
Hernández known as Posada “a brother for me then and a brother for me today,” they usually have been half of a really tight-knit Yankees’ crew. After a tumultuous 1-4 begin wherein Manager Joe Torre and Cashman questioned about their job safety, the Yankees cruised via an idyllic season. Pressure? What strain? The Yankees stored successful, so there was little stress. Until Game 4 of the A.L.C.S. Until they trailed the Indians two video games to 1 in a best-of-seven collection.
“It was really the first time all year that we were worried,” mentioned outfielder Paul O’Neill.
Enter El Duque, an unflappable pitcher who handled the pressure-packed sport the identical as every other begin. On the morning of Game 4, Torre was consuming breakfast within the resort restaurant when he observed a well-known determine cleansing plates and silverware from tables to assist the overtaxed employees. That helper was Hernández, who was as carefree as a pitcher may very well be.
“He wasn’t afraid of a thing,” mentioned 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 essential for him to navigate via the primary inning and discover the texture for his pitches. But a single and a stroll put two runners on base for Jim Thome, who had blasted two homers in Game 3. And Thome virtually went deep once more as he drove Hernández’s changeup to proper subject, however O’Neill caught it in entrance of the fence for the third out. The Yankees exhaled. Then the sport grew to become the El Duque Show as he pitched seven scoreless innings in a 4-0 win.
It will not be hyperbole to say that Hernández rescued the Yankees. Had the Yankees faltered, they might have been one loss away from elimination, and the strain would have been unbearable. The incessant query would have been: Could the crew that gained 114 common season video games flop? With all that the Yankees had completed, that may have been a disaster that they had not confronted all season. Instead, El Duque guided the Yankees.
“I had pressure,” Hernández mentioned. “But I had no fear.”
El Duque gave the Yankees a lot a couple of win that tied the collection. In the relieved clubhouse, it was evident that Hernández had additionally given the Yankees their swagger again. For 48 tense hours, the Yankees have been an uncomfortable bunch who questioned if their exceptional experience was about to finish. It didn’t. It didn’t as a result of of El Duque, probably the most compelling character in my ebook and probably the most fascinating participant on the best crew ever.
Jack Curry’s new ebook, “The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever,” was launched on May 2.