SABR

Willie Hernandez

This article was written by Gary Gillette.

In 1973, Jason Miller’s angst-enabled play That Championship Season won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. The drama, set in Scranton, Pennsylvania, focused on the 25th anniversary reunion of the players and the coach of a high-school basketball team that won the state championship. Full of booze, brooding, bigotry, bitterness, betrayal, and bruised feelings, neither the now-middle-aged players nor their retired coach can cope with the way their lives have played out since their collective moment of sweet triumph.

A world away from the limelight of the Big Apple, an 18-year-old Puerto Rican ballplayer signed his first professional contract on September 11, 1973, exactly one year after the first preview of That Championship Season had been staged by the New York Shakespeare Festival on Broadway.

Miller’s masterwork was produced by Joseph Papp, a giant of the American theater. Hernandez’s masterwork was produced by Sparky Anderson, a giant of the national pastime.

Willie Hernandez, an inexperienced 19-year-old pitcher, made his professional debut in April 1974 with Spartanburg, South Carolina, the Philadelphia Phillies’ affiliate in the old Western Carolinas League. When Miller’s Championship Season closed after 700 performances on Broadway that same month, Hernandez had just begun working on the “screenplay” for his dramatic championship season: The first scene in the first act had the hero lead his Class A loop in starts (26), complete games (13), innings (190), and strikeouts (179) against only 49 walks. His 11-11 ledger could only partially mask his dominance, which included a 2.75 earned-run average.

The young pitcher’s next stop was at Double-A Reading, like Scranton, a small, declining industrial city in the interior of the Keystone State, about 100 miles south of Scranton through the hardscrabble anthracite coal belt of eastern Pennsylvania.

High-school basketball is worlds away from Major League Baseball, and snowbound Scranton will never be mistaken for sunny Puerto Rico. Still, gritty Scranton displays more than a passing resemblance to its much-larger Rust Belt cousin Detroit, where Hernandez would rise to fame and fortune. And the movie’s theme has some resonance with the career of Guillermo Hernandez.

Robert Mitchum, Martin Sheen, Stacy Keach, Bruce Dern, and Paul Sorvino starred in the 1982 Cannon Films movie That Championship Season, written and directed by Miller. That was the year that Hernandez notched 10 saves for the first time, graduating from the obscurity of middle relief to a top-notch setup pitcher with the Chicago Cubs.

In 1983 Dern won a Silver Bear at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival for his celluloid performance as Scranton Mayor George Sitkowski. Meanwhile, Hernandez was earning rave reviews for his mound performances with Philadelphia. On July 3, he tied the National League relief record by fanning six consecutive batters; in the final game of the 1983 World Series, he punched out three Orioles hitters in a brilliant three-inning hitless relief performance.

Describing Hernandez’s award-winning 1984 performance is easy: The left-hander became Detroit’s closer and completely stifled opponents while racking up 35 saves in 36 opportunities (including the postseason). The only glitch came on the final weekend of the season after Detroit had clinched, when Hernandez was inserted into a one-run situation with a runner on third simply to get work. A sacrifice fly tied the game and registered a meaningless blown save, ending Hernandez’s then-major-league record 32 consecutive saves.

Setting a major-league record normally gets harder over time, but Hernandez’s record is far more impressive than that of a later titlist, Eric Gagne, who blitzed his way to 84 straight saves from 2002 to 2004. The majority of Gagne’s saves were the piece-of-cake one-inning, no runners-on-base variety; the Dodgers’ right-hander recorded more than three outs in only 18 percent of those appearances -- only once going as much as two innings. By contrast, Hernandez pitched more than one inning in 66 percent of his save chances, going two or more frames 18 times. He also did multi-inning stints in nonsave situations, including a four-inning outing. He also hurled four innings to earn a richly deserved save.

Hernandez’s statistics in ’84 were truly astounding: 80 games, 68 games finished (both major league-leading totals), a 9-3 record, 140⅓ innings, 96 hits, only six (!) home runs, 28 non-intentional walks, 112 strikeouts, a 1.92 ERA. His 140⅓ IP turned out be the fourth highest relief workload of the 1980s.

The All-Star, AL Pitcher of the Month for July, Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player, and Sporting News American League Pitcher of the Year became only the second Detroit hurler to win a Cy Young Award (Denny McLain being the first). He set Tigers records for games finished and appearances by a pitcher while becoming only the second Tigers pitcher to top 30 saves (John Hiller, the first). Appropriately, Hernandez threw the final pitches of the AL East-clinching game, the American League Championship Series-winning game, and the last game of the World Series.

From the first Cy Young Award, in 1956, to 2009, only nine relief pitchers won the award. There weren’t really full-time relief pitchers until after World War II; it is probably certain that the Philadelphia Phillies’ Jim Konstanty would have copped the award in 1950 if there were one at the time. So counting Konstanty, only 10 relief pitchers have managed to rise to the heights that Willie Hernandez achieved in 1984. Three of them are in the Hall of Fame: Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, and Bruce Sutter. Detroit’s relief ace became only the second bullpen hero to be honored with both the MVP and the Cy Young Awards (the third if you count Konstanty). Hernandez was also the first player from Puerto Rico to win the award and, 25 years later, remained the only Latino hurler to take home that trophy. In a 2005 poll by La Prensa, published for Hispanics living in the Detroit-Toledo corridor, Hernandez was voted the fourth best Latin “lansador relevista” (relief pitcher) of the 20th century.

Cy Relievers Team Lg Year

Eric Gagne LA NL 2003

Dennis Eckersley* OAK AL 1992 MVP

Mark Davis SD NL 1989

Steve Bedrosian PHI NL 1987

Willie Hernandez* DET AL 1984 MVP

Rollie Fingers* MIL AL 1981 MVP

Bruce Sutter CHN NL 1979

Sparky Lyle* NY AL 1977

Mike Marshall* LA NL 1974

Jim Konstanty* PHI NL 1950 MVP (pre-Cy Young)

* won pennant (pre-1969) or division (1969-2009)

Of the nine Cy Young firemen, Hernandez’s career most closely resembles that of Konstanty, an undistinguished reliever for the Phillies in the late 1940s before a good season in relief in 1949. Then, in 1950, the “Whiz Kid” Phillies streaked to a surprise National League pennant with Konstanty having his career year as closer. The right-hander earned his first and only All-Star nod on the way to becoming the first relief ace to win the MVP. Afterward, however, Konstanty slumped and had only two good seasons in relief in his remaining six years in the majors. Hernandez, likewise, made his first All-Star team in 1984. He pitched for another five seasons, turning in one very good year and a second good one before retiring.

While Hernandez experienced a peak that few other pitchers ever achieve, he was not the dominant reliever of the era. Looking at the top 10 relievers in terms of saves from 1984-86, Detroit’s closer ranks only fifth -- and this is counting only Hernandez’s peak years. Hernandez does, however, top the list in terms of how well he shut down enemy batsmen, holding hitters to an extremely low OPS+ (slugging average plus on-base average adjusted for league and park) of 61 (39 percent below league average).

Pitcher SV G GF W-L IP H BB SO ERA OPS+ Ages

Dave Righetti 106 212 181 25-21 310 263 117 265 2.53 68 25-27

Jeff Reardon 99 193 156 16-24 263.2 221 89 213 3.35 84 28-30

Lee Smith 97 200 175 25-20 289 254 109 291 3.27 83 26-28

Dan Quisenberry 93 218 197 17-19 339.2 355 52 131 2.57 79 31-33

Willie Hernandez 87 218 185 25-20 335.2 265 71 265 2.60 61 29-31

Rich Gossage 72 157 127 20-16 246 208 73 199 2.96 76 32-34

Bruce Sutter 71 145 124 14-14 229.2 217 61 145 2.90 97 31-33

Jesse Orosco 69 172 131 26-18 247 188 103 215 2.55 73 27-29

Donnie Moore 68 161 128 16-18 240 214 61 172 2.51 72 30-32

Dave Smith 65 171 121 18-16 212.2 168 59 131 2.37 70 29-31

Sporting News columnist Peter Gammons wrote that the Tigers’ biggest worries heading into the 1984 season were third base and relief pitching. As predicted, the hot corner proved problematic for Detroit all summer, but worrying about late-inning relief soon evaporated. In midseason, Detroit News scribe Jerry Green, who had covered his first major-league game a quarter-century earlier, in 1959, was surprised when voluble Tigers manager Sparky Anderson -- “looking for headlines” -- started talking up Hernandez as an MVP candidate. (Relief pitching was then viewed as much less important; try finding the handful of entries for saves records in the 464 pages of lists in the 1995 Official Baseball Record Book. Another example is the 1990 book Baseball’s Dream Teams, which had no relief pitchers picked for the its all-decade teams through the 1980s -- nor were any given honorable mention.)

In his over-the-top fashion, Anderson summarized the 1984 season after Detroit had won its world championship. “First, I thanked God. Then I thanked Hernandez. ...” Green called Hernandez’s MVP award “a Sparky Anderson production.”

In high school Hernandez starred while playing first base and the outfield, but he didn’t try pitching until the summer of 1973 -- a departure from the typical developmental pattern of major-league pitchers, who very often star as both hitters and pitchers in high school. He was graduated from Martin Hernandez High School in Aguada in 1973, signing his first professional contract with the Phillies shortly thereafter on September 11.

Despite his youth and lack of experience, Hernandez that summer made the Puerto Rican national team, which won a silver medal in the Intercontinental Cup and both silver and bronze medals in the Baseball World Cup (two separate competitions). Hernandez remembered hurling a shutout in his first outing on the mound, crediting himself as having “a 100-mile-per-hour fastball and an 85-mile-per-hour breaking ball.”

The promising amateur was scouted and signed for a $25,000 bonus by Phillies scout Ruben Amaro Sr. in Amaro’s first year as a scout. Hernandez spent three full seasons in the minors as a starting pitcher, progressing quickly to Triple A in the middle of his second season. In 1976, however, he posted a 4.53 ERA in Oklahoma City, after which Philadelphia left the 22-year-old off its 40-player winter roster. Wisely, the Cubs snatched the unprotected youngster in the 1976 Rule 5 draft.

With Chicago, Hernandez made his big-league debut in the second game of 1977, on April 9, pitching 2⅓ innings in relief of Steve Renko and surrendering one hit. The rookie went 8-7 with a 3.03 ERA in 110 innings as future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter completed his first full season as the Cubs’ closer. Hernandez’s sophomore campaign in 1978 was solid (8-2, 3.77, 59 innings), but he suffered a rocky third year in the bigs (4-4, 5.01, 79 IP) in 1979. Things got worse in 1980 (1-9, 4.40, 108⅓ IP), causing a trip to Triple-A in 1981, with Hernandez both starting and relieving before being recalled in August after the midseason strike. The left-hander rebounded in 1982, going 4-6 with a 3.00 ERA in 75 innings over 75 games.

On May 22, 1983, the Phillies reacquired Hernandez, sending veteran starter Dick Ruthven and pitching prospect Bill Johnson to Chicago.

Hernandez got the win when the Phillies clinched their 1983 National League East pennant on September 28 against the Cubs. The New Phillies Encyclopedia said that “the Phillies could never have clinched without him.” The budding star didn’t see action in the NLCS, but appeared three times for the losing Phillies in the five World Series games, facing 14 hitters and allowing only two to reach, via a walk and hit batsman. In Game Five, the unheralded reliever served notice that he had come of age, pitching three perfect frames (sixth through eighth). However, Philadelphia failed to take advantage of the opportunity to stage a comeback as Baltimore prevailed, 5-0.

In the American League, Detroit’s brain trust was watching and planning for 1984. The league in the mid-1980s was full of dangerous left-handed batters; six of 10 of the leading hitters in slugging and OPS in ’84 were lefties. The Tigers concluded after their 1983 second-place finish that they couldn’t win without adding a top-notch southpaw to their staff. (Closer Aurelio Lopez had completely smothered righty hitters in ’83, but lefties posted a .786 OPS against him.) Hernandez filled that need; his ascent to stardom was enhanced by Sparky Anderson’s need to shut down enemy lefties.

While the trade that brought Hernandez to Detroit at the end of spring training in 1984 is famous among Tigers fans, it is not really an issue among Phillies partisans -- not rating as one of the franchise’s worst deals as enumerated in The New Phillies Encyclopedia in 1993. Partly that is because the deal didn’t go as Philly had planned. John Wockenfuss had a decent year primarily as a backup first baseman and catcher in the City of Brotherly Love in 1984, hitting .289 with an .807 OPS in 86 games. Fading quickly at 36, Wockenfuss was released in mid-August 1985 while hitting a “buck-62” (in the parlance of the day).

Outfielder Glenn Wilson, whose “power potential” was the key for Philadelphia, played four seasons there in the prime of his career (ages 25-28). Wilson flopped badly in 1984, recovering in 1985 to drive in 102 runs and make the All-Star team for the only time. But his RBI production tailed off to 84 in 1986, and sank to 54 in 1987, ending his career at Broad and Pattison Streets in South Philly. Wilson hit only 49 homers in 2,102 at-bats for the Phillies.

Legendary Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson wrote in 1912, “There are two ways of fooling a batter. One is literally to ‘mix ’em up,’ and the other is to keep feeding him the same sort of a ball, but to induce him to think that something else is coming.” In 1984, Willie Hernandez did both to perfection.

Like many pitchers, Hernandez learned key elements of his craft from aging veteran moundsmen. Early on, his repertoire was pretty standard: fastball, curveball, slider, change. Because he didn’t throw exceptionally hard, and because his changeup wasn’t that good, he had a lot of trouble with right-handed power hitters.

Former Cy Young winner Mike Cuellar taught Hernandez the screwball as an alternative off-speed offering when the two Latino lefties played in the Puerto Rican winter league in 1983. Though the new pitch gave Hernandez another arrow in his quiver, he didn’t rely on it until he was with Philadelphia, where Latino catcher Bo Diaz kept calling for it. (While the screwball hadn’t yet faded from pitchers’ repertoires in the mid-1980s, Latino pitchers threw it much more frequently, so Diaz had experience catching it.)

While Hernandez’s famous screwball was crucial to his dominance in 1984, the pitch that elevated him from a good pitcher to an MVP was the cut fastball, with which he pounded right-handed hitters inside. Surprisingly, Hernandez didn’t start depending on either pitch until 1983.

Hernandez learned how to throw the cutter -- which, unlike the screwball, was becoming much more popular in the 1980s -- with Chicago in the spring of 1983 from another Cy Young winner, veteran Ferguson Jenkins, at the end of his Hall of Fame career. By throwing what looked like a standard fastball on the inside part of the plate, Hernandez suckered righty hitters into swinging at something they thought would be right in their wheelhouse. But breaking the cutter in on their hands, Hernandez induced a weak popups or grounders. He was also pushing righties off the plate, setting them up for a down-and-away screwball that they couldn’t handle. “All of a sudden, I could pitch inside,” said Hernandez when interviewed by Sports Illustrated in 1984.

Like many other top relievers with devastating out pitches, Hernandez used his scroogie mostly when ahead of the batter since it would often break out of the strike zone. His fastball was average in velocity, though his delivery had enough deception for his heater to earn the time-honored “sneaky fast” label. Hernandez’s No. 3 pitch, a decent curveball, was employed primarily against left-handed hitters.

Hernandez was neither preordained as Detroit’s closer nor immediately handed that coveted job after his first few performances with the Tigers. In April 1984, Aurelio Lopez appeared in nine games, saving two and finishing four. In May, he was called upon 11 times, finishing all 11 games while saving five. During those two months, Hernandez appeared in 22 games, finishing 18 and recording the same number of saves as Lopez.

In his first appearance of the year, on April 3, Lopez pitched a scoreless eighth inning before Hernandez followed up with a scoreless ninth. But that was with Detroit holding an 8-1 lead, so it really was just a tune-up for both relievers. In Lopez’s second appearance, he pitched four innings of one-run ball against Chicago in relief of starter Dave Rozema, fanning four and picking up the win. Hernandez again followed Lopez, pitching a scoreless ninth in a nonsave situation. Lopez’s third outing didn’t go so well after he replaced staff ace Jack Morris in the eighth with an 8-2 lead, allowing two runs. Hernandez followed with a scoreless ninth in another nonsave situation.

The next time Lopez didn’t finish a game, he entered the fray with Detroit holding a 4-0 lead over Chicago and pitched a scoreless eighth. The Tigers scored five runs in the bottom of the frame before, with a 9-0 lead, Anderson asked Hernandez to finish. On April 27, Lopez pitched 4⅔ scoreless innings, entering with one out in the 10th to bail Hernandez out of a jam. Detroit finally fell to Cleveland in the 19th.

May was similar. At the beginning of June, here’s how the “competition” between Detroit’s dynamic duo stood. Try to tell them apart without a scorecard:

Category Pitcher 1 Pitcher 2

Games 22 20

Games Finished 18 15

Wins 2 4

Losses 0 0

Saves 7 7

Innings 41 41

Strikeouts 34 31

ERA 2.63 1.73

Opponents’ BA .221 .177

Opponents’ OPS .571 .552

Pitcher No. 1: with the slightly inferior statistics overall. Pitcher No. 2 (Lopez) had one blown save (Hernandez had none), but Lopez had two more wins, a lower ERA, and lower opponents’ batting stats. Over the whole of 1984, 71.5 percent of Lopez’s saves qualified as either “tough” or “long”; for Hernandez, it was 62.5 percent.

Hernandez didn’t take the team lead in saves for good until June 8. Detroit’s meteoric 35-5 start meant the Tigers were bludgeoning their hapless opposition with such regularity that save opportunities were hard to come by. Yet the fact remains that Lopez was Detroit’s closer until mid-May and then became co-closer until a week into June. Only then did the veteran Mexican fireballer become the setup pitcher for the Puerto Rican sniper who would win the Cy Young and MVP. In April 2009, Hernandez acknowledged what most fans and writers had forgotten, telling Steve Kornacki of Booth Newspapers, “I shared closing with Aurelio Lopez, who was a great closer, too. But ... I was real consistent and Sparky named me the stopper. ... Nobody wanted to face me.”

Though superseded by Hernandez, Lopez became friends with his successor. Lopez summed it up well when he said late in the 1984 season, “Everyone in baseball is fallible. The trouble is, Willie has been infallible. That’s scary.”

Even though the Tigers couldn’t be blamed for Hernandez’s treatment in the National League -- where he bridled at being stuck principally behind Sutter and Lee Smith in Chicago and Al Holland in Philly -- Hernandez’s pride and ambition were already simmering before the ’84 season finished. “If Detroit can’t give me the money I want, they might as well trade me to a team that will. Heck, if I’m the MVP, I may be able to ask for the world,” he told Sports Illustrated writer Jaime Diaz. “I’m hungry to make some money.” Detroit gave Hernandez a generous contract extension after hard negotiations, though the pitcher’s public comments probably contributed to the future fan backlash.

The problem with Hernandez’s post-1984 career -- trite as it seems -- was that it was no longer 1984. The reigning MVP had an excellent year in 1985, but to many fans it seemed pallid by comparison to 1984. Anyone who ever bit their fingernails to the nubs with Todd Jones on the mound in the ninth inning for the Tigers in the 2000s would wish Hernandez could time-travel. But without the benefit of hindsight, 8-10 with 31 saves in 40 chances ain’t 9-3 and 32 out of 33, and Hernandez’s stock in Motown began to fall. The failure of Detroit to repeat in ’85 was largely blamed on its bullpen, with Hernandez and Lopez the key targets.

In 1986 Hernandez went 8-7 with 24 saves in 30 chances; tellingly, however, he was nicked for almost a hit per inning, with enemy hitters batting .251 off him as opposed to .201 in 1984-85. Making things worse was the lusty booing the erstwhile hero was getting at Tiger Stadium. By the start of 1987 Anderson was talking about a “bullpen by committee.”

Hernandez lost his monopoly on the closer’s job in 1987 due to two stints on the DL in April and May. Anderson auditioned younger hurlers Mike Henneman and Eric King in the role. Hernandez blew five saves in 13 chances that year, allowing more hits than innings pitched for the first time since 1981. After the aging Detroit club squeaked past Toronto to win the AL East, Anderson called on the veteran lefty only once in the five-game American League Championship Series. In Game One, Hernandez entered in the eighth with the bases loaded and the game tied. The formerly invincible fireman was treated rudely by the Twins, allowing two hits and three inherited runs while retiring no one -- getting credit for one-third of an inning pitched only because a fourth runner was thrown out at the plate. Though Sparky rang the bullpen six times in the last three games as Detroit was upset by Minnesota, he never called for Hernandez.

Perhaps smarting over his reduced role, and definitely reminiscent of the Bobby/Roberto Clemente episode a couple of decades earlier, the proud Hernandez demanded early in 1988 to be addressed henceforth as Guillermo, his birth name, rather than its Anglicized diminutive Willie. Though completely unnecessary, even that reasonable request generated controversy. Adding to the unhappiness with Hernandez was his dumping a bucket of ice water on popular Free Press columnist Mitch Albom in spring training that year. After the incident, Hernandez stopped talking to the media until midseason. Initially a big deal, the dousing became the subject of humorous TV commercials run by the newspaper and later made its list of fun facts for its 178th birthday in 2009.

In a way, the end in Detroit for Hernandez was fitting, given that his arrival coincided with what was expected to be a dynasty. The former MVP rebounded somewhat, allowing only 50 hits in 67⅔ innings while blowing five saves in 15 opportunities in 1988. But the hero of 1984 also threw the last pitch in a game that effectively crushed the Tigers’ hopes for one last hurrah before the aging club completely fell apart. Though Detroit ultimately finished only one game back of Boston in the AL East, the closeness was really due to the Red Sox’ 4-9 tailspin in the final two weeks, plus the Tigers winning their last three games after being eliminated while Boston dropped its last three.

At 7:38 p.m. on September 11, 1988, the Yankees’ Claudell Washington clouted a homer to right-center off Hernandez in the bottom of the 18th inning to give New York a 5-4 win in a six-hour contest that broke the Bengals’ backs. Hernandez had already pitched two full innings in relief of closer Mike Henneman, who had hurled seven innings after relieving starter Doyle Alexander.

Detroit had taken the lead with a run in the top of the 18th. After walking Rickey Henderson to begin the final frame, Hernandez was victimized by Washington, who said, “I knew it was gone when I hit it.” The heartbreaking loss was the 10th in 11 games and dropped Detroit into a second-place tie, 3½ games behind eventual division winner Boston. “It could break (the Tigers’) backs, said Henderson about New York’s four-game sweep of Detroit. After 1988 the Mayo Smith Society wrote, “Tiger fans have a love/hate relationship with Hernandez, who probably receives more abuse from the boo-birds than any other player on the team.”

The final unhappy season played out as Detroit collapsed to 103 losses in 1989, punctuated by Hernandez’s making two trips to the disabled list with left elbow tendinitis, although he managed to log 15 saves in 17 opportunities in only 32 appearances. Hernandez pitched his last game in the majors on August 18, coughing up a two-run homer to the Yankees at Tiger Stadium while in a nonsave situation. The proud warrior was absent from combat for the rest of the year.

After being released by the Tigers on December 22, 1989, Hernandez made several attempts to stage a comeback. The first was with Oakland in the spring of 1990; it lasted all of two days before Hernandez voluntarily left camp because of a sore arm. Athletics manager Tony La Russa complimented Hernandez, saying, “That took guts. He walked away from guaranteed money.”

The second attempt came with Philadelphia, which invited the former Phillies hurler to the club’s spring camp in 1991 as a nonroster player. After failing to make the cut with Philadelphia, Hernandez appeared in eight games with Triple-A Syracuse in the Blue Jays’ organization. Four years later, a 40-year-old Hernandez tried out for Yankees’ replacement team in the bitter spring of 1995. Saying “I’ll do whatever I can to make my comeback,” the veteran with the serious hardware on his trophy shelf at home took the practice field with a bunch of fringe ex-major leaguers and a gaggle of nobodies.

New York manager Buck Showalter expressed the prevailing attitude that spring, saying, “We wanted to know why” when he heard that Hernandez was interested in trying out. The retired pitcher had been seduced by Luis Arroyo, a Yankees scout, former star relief pitcher, and fellow Puerto Rican, who had contacted Hernandez about making a comeback. Showing again his defiant streak, Hernandez said when he reported, “Nobody is going to take my chance away. If I want to play baseball again, nobody is going to stop me.” Hernandez even went to Triple-A Columbus in the Yankees’ system after the strike was settled. But the magic of 1984 was nothing but a memory, as International League hitters pounded the former Cy Young Award winner in his 22 games in relief before Hernandez hung up his spikes for the final time.

After giving up the game he loved, Hernandez involved himself in several business ventures as well as coaching youth and semipro baseball. He also participated in the Tigers’ 2009 fantasy camp in Lakeland, Florida. He raised cattle on a ranch in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. But the ex-pitcher suffered from various ailments, including asthma, diabetes, and several strokes. He underwent heart surgery in 2009.

In September 2009, the Westport Country Playhouse in the tony Connecticut suburbs of New York City staged a revival of Miller’s play. Later that month, Guillermo Hernandez signed autographs and posed for photos with hundreds of fans on the concourse at Comerica Park in Detroit when the Tigers celebrated the 25th anniversary of their 1984 championship season. According to Guillermo Jr., his father had been “driving me crazy” because “[h]e was so excited to come back to Detroit again and see everyone.”

Many aging ex-ballplayers make a point of not going to or watching ballgames to express their bitterness or disappointment in the way they were treated or in the way the game has changed. Not Hernandez, who followed the Tigers closely and returned stateside periodically, mostly to appear at Tigers, Phillies, or Cubs events.

“Even when they have a bad ballclub, I follow them, because they gave me good memories,” Hernandez said in 2009. “I played for three different teams, but I want to be known as a Tiger, and I will always be a Tiger.”

Unlike Jason Miller’s five fictional angry men, there was not a trace of anger or angst in Hernandez when he reflected upon his championship season -- nor should there be.

Guillermo Hernandez y Villanueva was born on November 14, 1954, in Aguada, Puerto Rico. Aguada, a small city on the northwest coast of the island about 90 miles west of San Juan, is one of the earliest settlements in Puerto Rico, dating its founding to 1508-10. It is sometimes called La Ciudad Del Descrubrimiento (City of Discovery), referring to the widely held belief that Christopher Columbus landed at Aguada in 1493 when he “discovered” Puerto Rico. During the Colonial era, the busy port of Aguada was a stopover for ships of the Spanish Empire sailing between Spain and South America.

The son of Dionicio, who worked in a large local sugar cane centrale (factory), and Dominga, a domestic, Hernandez was the second youngest child in a large, poor family with eight siblings. (Sugar cane was the primary cash crop of Puerto Rico in the first half of the 20th century before the island commonwealth began to convert its economy from agriculture to manufacturing.) His parents encouraged their children to be active in athletics -- and they were rewarded when their son reached the pinnacle of success in the majors.

Hernandez married the former Carmen Rivera in 1978. They had two children together, but later divorced. Guillermo Hernandez had five children and one grandson.

 

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Siwoff, Seymour, Steve Hirdt, and Peter Hirdt. The 1985 Elias Baseball Analyst. New York: Collier Books. 1985.

Siwoff, Seymour, Steve Hirdt, and Peter Hirdt. The 1986 Elias Baseball Analyst. New York: Collier Books. 1986.

Sloan, Dave. Official Baseball Guide, 1985 Edition. St. Louis: The Sporting News Publishing Company. 1985.

Spatz, Lyle. The SABR Baseball List & Record Book. New York: Scribner. 2007.

Sumner, Benjamin Barrett. Minor League Baseball Standings. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2000.

Wescott, Rich, and Frank Bilovsky. The New Phillies Encyclopedia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1993.

Articles

“AL Insider,” USA Today, July 18, 1988.

“Around the Majors/Senior Arms,” Washington Post, March 26, 1990.

Barnas, Jo-Ann, “Year of the Tiger relived,” Detroit Free Press, September 29, 2009.

“Beloved Tigers closer ‘Willie’ Hernandez will return from Puerto Rico for Whitecaps event,” Grand Rapids Press, August 27, 2009.

Bernreuter, Hugh. “Detroit Tigers 1984 hero Willie Hernandez brings memories to Dow Diamond Saturday,” mlive.com, August 28, 2009.

Brussat, Frederic, and Mary Ann Brussat. “Film Review/That Championship Season,” SpiritualityandPractice.com (undated).

Curry, Jack. “Yanks Sign Ex-M.V.P. but He’s 40,” New York Times, March 6, 1995.

Diaz, Jaime. “He’s Giving Batters the Willies,” Sports Illustrated, September 19, 1984.

Felber, Bill, and Gary Gillette. “The Changing Game” in John Thorn and Pete Palmer’s Total Baseball, seventh edition. Kingston, New York: Total Sports Publishing. 2001.

Gage, Tom. “Hernandez Tigers New Bullpen Ace,” The Sporting News, April 2, 1984, 23-24.

Gage, Tom. “Ex-Tiger Hernandez Joins Yankees as Replacement Player,” Detroit News, March 7, 1995.

Gammons, Peter. “Hernandez Deal May Put Tigers on Top,” The Sporting News, April 9, 1984. 14.

Gavrilovich, Peter. “178 fun facts for the Detroit Free Press’ 178th birthday,” Detroit Free Press, May 5, 2009.

Gillette, Gary. “Requiem for the Tigers,” in The 1989 Baseball Abstract, Kirkwood, Mo.: Mad Aztec Press. April 1989. 149-151.

Henning, Lynn. “Tigers’ 35-5 start in 1984 still has power to amaze,” Detroit News online edition. May 21, 2009.

“Hernandez leaves Phils in 3-way deal,” Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1984.

Joy, Emilia Badillo. “The Sugar Industry of Puerto Rico,” PReb.com.

Julich, Raquel. “Un Poquito De Beisbol Con Sabor Bilingue/Major League Baseball: 100-plus years of Legends,” LaPrensaToledo.com, 2005.

Kornacki, Steve. “Unknown by new Tigers teammates, Guillermo Hernandez lifted Detroit to 1984 world championship,” mlive.com, April 5, 2009.

Kornacki, Steve. “Brotherhood of 1984 World Series champion Tigers lives on,” mlive.com, September 28, 2009.

McClary, Mike. “The 1984 Hernandez/Bergman Trade Revisited,” DailyFungo.com, March 28, 2008.

Meixell, Ted. “Glenn Wilson Comes Back With Desire To Be Best/Phillies: At Spring Training,” Allentown Morning Call. April 1, 1985.

Rothstein, Mervyn. “Joseph Papp, Theater’s Champion, Dies,” New York Times, November 1, 1991.

Sexton, Joe. “Yanks Defeat Tigers in 18th,” New York Times, September 12, 1988.

“Sports People/Phils Invite Hernandez,” New York Times, February 22, 1991.

Stertz, Bradley A. “It’s Probably Not Too Smart for Us to Publicize This Kind of Revenge,” Wall Street Journal, March 14, 1988.

Welch, Chuck. “’84 Tigers Celebrate Series Anniversary at Fantasy Camp Game,” LakelandLocal.com, January 29, 2009.

Websites

http://Detroit.Tigers.MLB.com

http://SABRpedia.org (Society for American Baseball Research’s online encyclopedia)

http://welcome.topuertorico.org/city/aguada.shtml

http://welcome.topuertorico.org/economy.shtml

http://www.BaseballIndex.org

http://www.Baseball-Reference.com

http://www.ibdb.com (Internet Broadway Database)

http://www.imdb.com (Internet Movie Database)

http://www.MapQuest.com

http://www.WestportPlayhouse.org

Interviews & Communications

Carlton, Russell (coordinator, baseball media relations, Detroit Tigers). E-mail messages to author.

Craig, Roger. Telephone interview by author.

Green, Jerry. Telephone interview by author.

Kornacki, Steve. Telephone interview by author.

Nelson, Rod. E-mail messages to author.

Palmer, Pete. E-mail messages to author.

Shea, Stuart. E-mail messages to author.

Unpublished sources

Society for American Baseball Research Who-Signed-Whom Database.

24-7 Baseball Modern Player Register, 1975-2009.

24-7 Baseball Relief Pitcher Reports, 1984-89.

24-7 Baseball Salary Database, 1982-2008.

24-7 Baseball/ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia Disabled List-Injury Register.

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