Orlando Hernandez

This article was written by Peter C. Bjarkman

The remarkable story of El Duque Hernández actually begins with the tale of his father Arnaldo, a failed erstwhile star in the Cuban League during its earlier decades. Arnaldo’s spotty career provides a most interesting narrative in and of itself. Fainaru’s incisive portraits in The Duke of Havana make it altogether clear that one simply can’t know the latter El Duque’s early life in Cuba without grasping the background story of a colorful father and a pair of equally talented ballplaying brothers. Arnaldo — the father and the original “El Duque”—had himself been a considerable baseball talent in his youth. But a domestic-league career never went far for the less- than-serious Arnaldo Sr., and his subsequent years would produce a vagabond lifestyle that would convert a potential pitching phenom into a living legend of a very different order. The elder Arnaldo fathered two future ballplayers (Arnaldo Jr. and Orlando) with his first wife and then another, Liván, during a second marriage. He would spend decades as an apparently carefree drifter enjoying his aura of irresponsibility and passing briefly in and out of his equally famed children’s lives. Fainaru tracked him down in 1999, now residing in the central province of Las Tunas with yet another son and still all too eager to reminisce about a squandered youth and boast that his youngest offspring — 15-year-old Marlon — was most likely now also destined to become the true supreme pitching talent of his rather star-crossed family (an idle dream, since Marlon would never pursue a ballplaying career).

Arnaldo’s eldest son and namesake, Orlando’s senior by two years, was occasionally reported to be the most gifted athlete of the clan. But an accident with a machete during teenage years had scarred his wrist and robbed his fastball. When a second son came along, the proud patriarch also wanted to name him in his own image (a third Arnaldo), but, bowing to his wife’s objections, settled on a close approximate, Arnoldo. Family legend (reported by Fainaru) claims that the headstrong Arnoldo as a preteen himself insisted on rearranging the letters to Orlando. Arnaldo Jr., his pitching career sidetracked and sabotaged by the childhood injury, eventually would find his way into the National Series for a single modest season as a first baseman with Havana’s second league team, Metropolitanos. He was desperately trying to resurrect the pieces of a broken baseball dream when in April 1994 he was tragically struck down by a fatal aneurysm only a few months after turning 30.The family’s poverty at the height of Cuba’s Special Period clearly contributed to the untimely death. The lack of a family phone, available gasoline and electricity, and a nearby ambulance all conspired to delay medical assistance that might have saved Arnaldo’s life. Orlando was totally devastated by the tragic death of his idolized older brother.

Orlando would ironically prove to be the lesser natural talent among Arnaldo’s three ballplaying offspring, outshone in early years not only by Arnaldo Jr. but also later surpassed in raw talent by the late-arriving Liván. Orlando’s arduous path to the National Series was anything but an avenue paved with immediate successes. He was exposed to the sport as a toddler, watching his father and later his more promising elder brother play. His mother, María Julia, would regularly drag her two sons to Latin American Stadium to watch the original El Duque pitch, even though the marriage had already been dissolved. Baseball was in the youngster’s blood from the start. But when he tried out for the provincial EIDE (elementary level) sports academy at age 11, he was promptly rejected and told he had little aptitude for the sport. Undeterred, he plugged on with the encouragement and occasional schooling of an uncle who had also played during early National Series years as a spunky shortstop of limited skills. Through constant application, Duque had developed enough promise by the age of 16 to be accepted into a high-school-level sports academy (ESPA). He finally debuted at age 21 with the Havana Industriales, the team his father had once briefly played for. It was not a particularly young age for a Cuban League rookie when compared to some of the island’s more precocious stars. And it would then be another half-dozen seasons before Orlando would truly blossom as a recognized pitching ace.

By the mid-1990s, Duque had finally carved out his niche as one of the most talented and idolized pitchers on the island. A first season of double-figure wins came in 1992-93 (12-3) and was followed by stellar 11-2 and 11-1 ledgers. He enjoyed an especially heated rivalry with future defector Rolando Arrojo (then starring for a Villa Clara team in the process of posting three straight league titles) and also with Industriales teammate Lázaro Valle. By the time of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, both Valle and Duque were mainstays on a potent Team Cuba staff. And on the domestic front, after 10 full seasons Duque had compiled the best won-lost record (126-47, .728) in island league history. The mark remained his lasting legacy in his abandoned but never forgotten homeland.

Duque’s troubles began with Liván’s September 1995 Mexican defection, an event unfortunately over-lapping with the flight of Fernández, who also skipped out on the Cuban team during a July exhibition series in Millington, Tennessee. Paranoia about such defections was suddenly growing by leaps and bounds in the Cuban camp. Not surprisingly, El Duque was placed under immediate surveillance, since his own possible defection was apparently widely suspected within the INDER inner circles. But the fallout harassment wouldn’t stop there. In March 1996 he was dropped from Team Cuba’s roster for the coming Atlanta Olympics, a severe personal blow made more painful by the fact that the star pitcher received the news only via a TV broadcast announcing team selections. Talented shortstop Germán Mesa (a defensive genius often compared to Ozzie Smith) had also been suspected of defection plans and was also booted from the Olympic squad headed for Atlanta. 1 

If Liván’s defection haunted his half-brother, Cubas’s indirect efforts at further infiltration of the Cuban baseball establishment would soon prove far more deadly. Juan Ignacio Hernández Nodar now entered the scene and things got much worse in a hurry. Juan Ignacio had once worked closely with his cousin Joe Cubas but there had been a bitter falling- out, spawned mainly by Nodar’s refusal to follow his cousin’s edicts against traveling openly to Cuba. In the aftermath, Juan Ignacio decided to set himself up in the ballplayer agent business with a particular focus, of course, on Cuban defectors, since that is where the big bucks could most quickly be found by a novice hoping to crack the agent business. Juan Ignacio stepped up his travels to Cuba but was not the smoothest of operators. He flaunted his presence on the scene by flashing wads of cash and making bold public display of his lavish on it. The already disgraced pitcher — along perhaps with stellar shortstop Mesa — was the big fish Nodar Hernández was hoping to land.

Onetime Joe Cubas associate Tom Cronin, now Juan Ignacio’s full-fledged partner, had just landed in Havana at the time of Juan Ignacio’s arrest and was also immediately taken into custody, then quickly sent packing back to the United States. But consequences would be far worse for others caught up in the web. The subsequent Hernández Nodar trial (opening on October 28, 1996) was pure disaster for El Duque, Mesa, and national team catcher Alberto Hernández. (Alberto had seemingly come under suspicion when his roommate, Ozzie Fernández, fled the Cuban camp in Millington.) All were called to testify and it was a grueling and frightening experience. El Duque was first up and stoically refused to brand Juan Ignacio a dangerous smuggler rather than merely a casual friend; Mesa, by contrast, pointed his finger at the American as an enemy of the Cuban state. A terrified Alberto evasively answered questions about his own past contacts with Cubas during overseas trips. 2 His crime had apparently been his plotting to carry out illegal defections (those of El Duque, Mesa, Alberto, and possibly ace pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo), but the truth was that he was being punished as much for the actual defections previously orchestrated by his now estranged cousin Joe Cubas as for any of his own bumbling activities.

There were several smoking guns in the Hernández Nodar affair that led to the downfall of the three Cuban players. The wannabe agent had become the link that allowed Liván to aid his impoverished brother back in Havana with gifts of much-needed cash. Nodar on several occasions had carried large bundles of American dollars not only to Duque but also to Liván’s mother, Miriam Carreras, still living in Isla. And he did so with little discretion or even minimal caution. Fainaru later quoted Duque’s own claims about just how foolhardy and careless his benefactor had been. Worse still, Nodar had foolishly decided he could pry both Duque and Mesa away from Cuba with a scheme that was more James Bond than Joe Cubas in its outlines. And so, on his final ill-fated visit, he carried with him forged Venezuelan work visas in the names of both ballplayers that he thought would facilitate his efforts. Such documents are highly illegal in Cuba, as they are in just about any country. In the end that was the evidence that sealed his own fate as well as theirs.

And then in the wake of the trial, the biggest blow of all came when Duque and Mesa were summoned to the Latin American Stadium’s INDER offices for an ominous high-level meeting. They optimistically expected they might perhaps receive some stern warnings about future behavior and perhaps be left home during a coming scheduled tour of Mexico by their Industriales team. But instead both, along with Holguín catcher Alberto Hernández, were informed that they were now being banned for life from Cuban baseball. The “Pride of Holguín” (Alberto) would return home to his own embarrassment and disgrace that included the dismantling of a shrine at the local ballpark displaying his hard-earned trophies and gold medals. Germán, suspected by many of cooperating at the trial to secure his own hoped-for pardon, disappeared into a quiet obscurity from which he wouldn’t reappear for two years. But it was the star Industriales pitcher — condemned in the wake of his brother’s heresy — who suffered the most severe banishment consequences.

El Duque was now effectively a shunned man in the city where only months before he had been an unrivaled sporting hero and national icon. The sport he loved had been stripped away from him. He could play ball only in a weekend recreational league where, because of his skills, he was not allowed to pitch and had to play the infield in a treasured souvenir New York Yankees T-shirt. His failing marriage to Norma Manzo quickly dissolved. He was assigned to work as a physical therapist at the psychiatric hospital in his neighborhood near Havana’s José Martí International Airport. Life seemed to have hit rock bottom.

Duque’s escape from Cuban shores on Christmas weekend of 1997 was a secretive and deftly plotted affair largely orchestrated by his close friend Osmany Lorenzo. 3 After several reportedly harrowing (but apparently not life-threatening) hours, the group successfully reached Anguilla Cay. But the trip became surprisingly complicated when a prearranged pickup launch promised by Duque’s great uncle Ocilio Cruz never arrived from Miami as anticipated. 4 That is when the real complications set in.

It appeared for a time that the refugees might be sent back to Cuba. It was at that crucial juncture that opportunist Joe Cubas (alerted to Duque’s plight and also grasping his own sudden opportunity to cash in) arrived on the scene. It is reported in some accounts (including the ESPN documentary) that a US visa had already been arranged for the highly valuable baseball pitcher (along with his girlfriend and catcher Alberto Hernández). According to those versions, Duque nobly refused to leave the Bahamian refugee encampment without his entire contingent of companions. (As Fainaru eventually unfolds the tale, that selfless decision to deny a US visa would have negative consequences in the future when it came to seeking Washington aid in arranging transport of Duque’s mother and daughters out of Havana on the eve of a 1998 World Series victory celebration.) Cubas in the end was able to arrange the transfer of all members of the party to Costa Rica, where they would eventually receive the required third-country residence visas.

Within six months, Cubas had arranged a deal with the Yankees, who had missed out on brother Liván three years earlier, and by late spring Duque was already proving his skills at Triple-A Columbus. The Yankees contract was not what Cubas had hoped for but was substantial enough: $6.6 million for four years with a $1 million signing bonus. In short order the 32-year-old rookie reached New York for his big-league debut, a five-hit, seven-inning victorious effort against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. One colorful rookie- season incident that has become legend has Hernández questioned by New York media about the pressures of first facing the Red Sox and Pedro Martínez in “The House That Ruth Built.” (It would have been the game of September 14, in which Duque tossed a three-hit shutout.) El Duque is reported to have laughed off the question by responding that no pressure could compare to what he had already known pitching against rival Santiago de Cuba with 50,000 fanatics crammed into Havana’s Latin American Stadium.

Duque wasted little time in nearly matching Liván’s own first-year postseason heroics. And this time it would happen on a grander stage in baseball’s anointed media capital of New York City. The Cuban import posted a dozen rookie victories (against four losses), emerging overnight one of the aces of a deep Yankees staff. He then authored several crucial victories in a postseason charge to the American League pennant. None was more vital than a brilliant seven-inning shutout effort during a do-or-die Game Four ALCS victory over the Indians at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field. In his single World Series outing, Hernández breezed to a 9-3 victory as the Yankees easily dispatched the San Diego Padres with a four-game sweep. The dream season was crowned by the most personally important moment of all when El Duque was tearfully reunited with his mother and two daughters just in time for the traditional New York City victory tickertape parade.

That emotional family reunion provides one of the strangest twists of the entire Duque Hernández saga. Orlando had been deeply depressed over the 10-month separation from his daughters (8-year-old Yahumara and the younger Steffi), a deep void that could never be filled by glories of newfound freedom or any headline achievement on the big-league diamonds in the United States. Through the heroic behind-the-scenes labor of Joe Cubas’s personal aide René Guim (pronounced Gimm with a silent U) and City University of New York international relations professor Pamela Falk, efforts had been mounted to convince Fidel Castro that it might serve his own interests to make yet another goodwill gesture and allow Duque’s family to freely and quickly leave Cuba. Such action would repeat a concession Fidel had made only a year earlier by releasing Liván’s mother to join her son for a World Series celebration in Miami.

Fainaru (The Duke of Havana, Chapter 17) again provides an elaborate account of the reunion efforts and their eventual happy outcome, and it was that event, played out on a private airstrip in New Jersey, that provides a feel-good conclusion for Mario Díaz’s 2014 ESPN documentary film. Cardinal John O’Connor, the archbishop of New York, would be a main player in the unfolding events, along with his emissary, Mario Parades, who personally carried the cardinal’s letter of request to Fidel. The pivotal heroine had been the tireless Pamela Falk, who first enlisted the cardinal’s aid and then fought to convince initially uncooperative Clinton administration officials to provide the needed US visas. Joe Cubas and George Steinbrenner — two men not especially celebrated for their altruism or humanitarian gestures — also played significant roles in the unfolding drama. Cubas had originally initiated the entire plot to bring his star client’s missing family to US shores and at the eleventh hour it was also Cubas who enlisted aid from the Yankees owner in the form of a private jet needed to rush the new arrivals from Miami to New York for the time-sensitive reunion.

Fidel’s gesture was a lone bright spot when it came to the Cuban government’s role precipitating and then following El Duque’s fall from grace in Havana and his eventual resurrection in the US big leagues. Duque had been treated by INDER officials and the communist government mechanism with what can only now be viewed as a fully unwarranted savagery. He and Mesa and Alberto Hernández were stripped of their small livelihoods, their much larger prestige, and blossoming careers, as well as their valued reputations as loyal Cubans, for no crime that they had actually committed, but rather for some imagined infraction that paranoid officials believed they might have considered committing. They in fact were not in the end convicted of any specific crime against either the state or its baseball machinery. They were instead the ill-fated recipients of a merely symbolic act. They had been held up to the public as examples of suspected (even if not actual) disloyalty in what was quite transparently a desperate and irrational government effort to stem the tide of a growing annoyance that no one had the slightest solution for.

In retrospect, one might in some respects under- stand and even sympathize with the frustrations of INDER officials and perhaps of Fidel himself as they witnessed what from their perspective was an illegal and immoral effort to destroy their national sport for the mere profit of outsiders — intruders they viewed as capitalist villains. And it was not entirely unreasonable for the Cubans to also see the raiding of their players on home soil and overseas as connected to ongoing Miami and Washington efforts to bring down their entire revolution.

Duque’s final seasons in New York enjoyed a measure of success while never reaching the peak level of a first world championship outing. In 2000 he won in double figures for the third straight year, although he posted a losing record at 12-13; he also captured all three initial playoff decisions before dropping his lone World Series start in the intercity matchup with the crosstown Mets. There would also eventually be a career revival for the aging ace with the American League Chicago White Sox, where he spent a single championship season after a year on the disabled list (torn rotator cuff) while property of the Montreal Expos, plus a brief return stint with the Yankees in 2004 (where he posted a solid 8-2 ledger after a late- spring start due to ongoing recovery from the earlier injury). The second go-around in Gotham did feature still another postseason appearance; he started once without a decision in the Yankees’ ALCS loss to the Boston Red Sox.

A glorious career swan song unfolded with the Chicago stopover when the then-39-year-old veteran performed admirably (9-9, 5.12 ERA in 24 appearances, 22 starts) at the tail end of a strong White Sox starting rotation featuring Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland, and fellow Cuban José Contreras. The highlight moment came with a crucial Game Three of the ALDS versus Boston when Duque entered in relief with the bases loaded and none out and vanquished the enemy uprising without surrendering a run. It was something of a last hurrah, nonetheless, as Hernández was promptly traded to the National League Arizona Diamondbacks after reaching his 40th birthday. A pair of moderately successful final big-league seasons were played out in somewhat vagabond fashion in Arizona and then back in New York with the National League Mets (where he was again traded in late May after only nine starts with Arizona). A final campaign with the Mets in 2007 concluded with foot surgery that would again wipe out an entire summer season the following year. A free agent at the end of 2008, the 43-year-old attempted brief and unsuccessful minor-league comebacks with the Texas Rangers (2009) and Washington Nationals (2010). Effectively finished with professional baseball after parting with the Washington organization in September 2010, Duque delayed announcing his official retirement until August of the following year.

In the end it would be Liván who would pile up notable career big-league numbers (178 wins, 355 decisions, 3,000-plus innings worked, and nearly 2,000 K’s) that would not only far outstrip the more celebrated El Duque but also quietly place the younger half-brother among the top Cuban big-league hurlers from any era. Only an illustrious quartet (Luque, Tiant, Pascual, and Cuéllar) can claim higher or even approximate totals for victories, career decisions, innings pitched, or strikeouts. If Livan’s 17-year career did not boast quite as many highlights or etch as many headlines as that of his older sibling, in the end it stands as a near-equal monument to the quality of modern-era Cuban baseball.

Duque’s big-league career would in the end never boast the numbers attached to his half-brother. Like Contreras, he arrived late on the big-league scene at age 32-plus and with most of his best years likely already behind him. His best big-league season was undeniable his first, and after the initial three years with the Yankees he only once more registered double digits in the victory column (11-11 during a penultimate 2006 campaign at age 41, split between the Diamondbacks and Mets). His best performances always seemed to come with the pressures of the postseason, where he owned an overall 9-3 ledger and where his 2.55 ERA was a marked improvement on his 4.13 career number. But his true legacy, like Liván’s, would inevitably rest mainly on his role as a pioneer among latter-day Cuban big-league imports.

El Duque returned to the media spotlight several years after retirement as a central figure in two important documentaries portraying the trials of Cuba’s national sport. The first, by award-winning Havana filmmaker Ian Padrón, earned only a controversial reception back in Havana but won a prestigious gold medal award at the 2008 Third Annual Cooperstown Baseball Film Festival sponsored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Padron’s Fuera de la Liga (Outside the League but with the alternate English title Dreaming in Blue) documented the 2003 National Series season of the Havana Industriales Blue Lions, a year that ended in postseason disappointment but featured the sensational rookie campaign of future big leaguer Kendrys Morales.The thrust of the film was the special national status of the Industriales club as the island’s clearcut fan favorite. A memorable earlier star with Industriales, Duque was highlighted throughout the reprise of team history and was also interviewed in New York as a featured “talking head” for Padron’s portrayal. 5 The second and far better known film was Mario Díaz’s classic ESPN 30 for 30 production entitled “Brothers in Exile” and recounting the dual related escapes from Cuba of the Hernández brothers. The ESPN documentary was based heavily on the 2001 Fainaru and Sánchez book The Duke of Havana, and thus also traced the defection stories of the pair no further than the highlight 1998 postseason events surrounding El Duque’s debut season with the Yankees.

Duque’s less familiar legacy remains intact in his homeland as a Cuban League record-holder and lasting icon of Cuba’s socialist baseball experiment. If he is rarely acknowledged in official circles, he remains cherished by proud fans. 6 It is a record that may well prove unbreakable and while it may own its stature to a short 10-year career, it can also be argued that had Duque remained in his homeland he might well have finished on top of the heap in numerous other celebrated lifetime categories (such as total wins, strikeouts, and career shutouts among others). His strikeouts/walks ratio (1211/455) remains one of the best in league annals.

Most recently El Duque and the handful of other pioneering defectors from the waning years of the twentieth century (mostly pitchers) have been over- shadowed by the dramatic exploits of those who have followed in the near tidal wave of exiled Cuban stars arriving on North American shores after 2010. While the handful of mostly veteran hurlers who opened eyes in the mid- and late 1990s were anything but invisible—Duque and Liván both occupied center stage with postseason MVP performances—they nonetheless always seemed something of an anomaly on the big-league scene. A decade into the new millennium Chapman, then Céspedes and Puig, and finally Abreu all seemed to signal a long-overdue renewed Cuban presence on the big-league scene; they appeared as harbingers of the future rather than rare and exceptional reminders of the past. But nonetheless, both El Duque and Liván today remain important centerpieces in the complex saga of evolving late twentieth and early twenty-first century USA-Cuba baseball relations.

  • 1. Mesa’s exclusion would unexpectedly open the career door for another talented shortstop, Eduardo Paret, who was destined to eventually become captain of Team Cuba throughout the entire first decade of the new millennium.
  • 2. Hernández Nodar was promptly convicted and sentenced to prison for 13 years, a term he would serve out in full.
  • 3. The group would include new girlfriend Noris Bosch, Lorenzo himself, all-star catcher Alberto Hernández, and several fellow travelers including boat pilot Juan Carlos Romero.
  • 4. After three tense days filled with fears of being hopelessly lost or perhaps fatally marooned, the frightened and hungry refugee group was eventually located by an American patrol helicopter, then loaded onto a Miami-based Coast Guard cutter and finally delivered to authorities in the Bahamas.
  • 5. It was the appearance and central role of the celebrated defector that in fact caused the film to be withdrawn by government censors from the prestigious Havana Film Festival.
  • 6. His most memorable mark in the record books — a .728 (126-47) career winning percentage—remains untouched two decades later despite two recent challenges.