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Remembering Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez

(Note – This passage comes from the original manuscript The Least Among Them by Paul Semendinger. This unique history of the Yankees franchise is currently being queried for publication. Interested publishers/agents may contact Dr. Semendinger through this blog.)

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Throughout baseball history, there have a series of legendary players who came from Cuba. This list includes Hall-of-Famer Tony Perez and a host of All-Stars including Minnie Minoso, Luis Tiant, Mike Cuellar, Bert Campaneris, and Tony Oliva. These players all began their careers in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In 1962, professional sports were outlawed in Cuba. Cuban born players were also forbidden to play baseball abroad. This led to a long period where Cuban baseball starts were not able to reach Major League baseball. The only way for Cubans to make it to the baseball leagues in the United States was to defect from their home country. This did not happen often. Between 1963 and 1991, only one Major League baseball player, Barbaro Garbey, was able to leave Cuba and make it to the big leagues.

By the early 1990’s, due to Cuba’s struggling economy, more baseball players started to defect from that island country. These defections were often dangerous putting the lives of the ball players and their accomplices at great risk. One such player who defected from Cuba during that time was Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez.

Orlando Hernandez was one of Cuba’s greatest baseball players. A right-handed pitcher, El Duque was a star in Cuba who was also a large presence in international competitions. Hernandez pitched in the 1988, 1990, and 1994 Baseball World Cup competitions. He also was on the 1992 Cuban Olympic baseball team. In his career in Cuba, El Duque won 126 games against only 47 losses for a winning percentage of .728, the highest of all-time. He was true pitching star. After his half brother Livan Hernandez defected from Cuba, Orlando Hernandez was suspended, and later banned for life from playing baseball. He was reduced to living in poverty and working as laborer in a mental hospital.

On December 26, 1997 Orlando Hernandez, along with seven companions, fled Cuba on a 21-foot fishing boat. They spent over ten hours at sea before landing on an uninhabited cay in the Bahamas where they lived on meager rations for three days before being found by the United State Coast Guard. El Duque was granted a visa through Costa Rica and was then subject of a great bidding war among numerous Major League baseball clubs. The New York Yankees won his services for $6.6 million.

The Yankees sent Hernandez to the Minor Leagues to hopefully begin his path to the Major Leagues. No one knew how long this journey would take, as he had not pitched for over eighteen months. Immediate positive results soon followed. Pitching for the Single-A Tampa Yankees and the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, El Duque went 7-1 in nine starts. He struck out 74 batters in just over 51 innings of work. By June, 1998, Orlando Hernandez was pitching in the Major Leagues for the Yankees. His success there was also immediate. El Duque won his first game allowing only five hits and one run over seven innings. His success continued. Between August 3 and the end of the season, El Duque went 7-1. For the season, he was 12-4… a remarkable beginning.

The 1998 Yankees were one of baseball’s most successful teams. They dominated the American League with a 114-48 record. They knew, though, that their job would be considered incomplete unless they won the World Series. After sweeping the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Round, the Yankees found themselves on the verge of a crisis in the American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians.

After winning the first game, the Yankees dropped the next two to Cleveland. If there is such a thing as momentum, the Indians surely had it having outscored the Yankees 10-2 in their two victories. The Yankees seemed to be self-destructing against this formidable Cleveland team. It must be remembered that the previous year the Indians had defeated these same Yankees in the American League Championship Series. History looked like it was on the verge of repeating itself.

On Saturday, October 10, 1998, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez took the mound for the Yankees. He had been a legendary “big game” pitcher in Cuba. For the Yankees, he did not disappoint. In this game, El Duque scattered only three hits and no runs over seven innings propelling the Yankees to a 4-0 victory that evened the series at two games. One might say, he reignited the Yankees and pushed them to their World Championship as they won the remainder of their games, right through the World Series. In that World Series, Hernandez was the winning pitcher in Game Two.

In told, Orlando Hernandez pitched six seasons for the Yankees to an impressive 61-40 overall record. In the post season, he was even more remarkable, winning his first eight decisions in playoff and World Series competition. El Duque was the MVP of the 1999 American League Championship Series.

After the 2002 season, injuries began to take a toll on El Duque. He finished his career pitching for the Chicago White Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks, and the New York Mets. That being said, he was an instrumental pitcher on the World Champion 2004 White Sox. El Duque retired with 95 Major League wins against 65 losses. Between his Cuban career and the Major Leagues, Orlando Hernandez won 216 games opposed to only 112 losses for a winning percentage of .658. His combined career, along with his dominating performances in the post season, leaves little doubt that Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez was the greatest Cuban baseball players to ever come to the Major Leagues.

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(Note – This passage comes from the original manuscript The Least Among Them by Paul Semendinger. This unique history of the Yankees franchise is currently being queried for publication. Interested publishers/agents may contact Dr. Semendinger through this blog.)

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