The Outrageous Star Power of El Duque

The thriller man was tall and lean and he was smiling, perpetually smiling. His life had modified dramatically when he left Cuba in a fishing boat, and it was about to alter once more. Every day featured extra adjustments, extra smiles and extra glimpses of the pitcher often known as 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 signal 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 had been wanting 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 had 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 totally different from any that the attendees had ever seen. His eyes regarded 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 increased and better, his knee virtually brushing his chin, after which he peered to the facet earlier than reconnecting with the goal and powering ahead to fireside a pitch. It was athletic. It was balletic. It was beautiful.

“He confirmed up for this bullpen session in Tampa and he simply had this presence about him like he was Michael Jordan,” stated General Manager Brian Cashman. “There was one thing projecting from him, a presence that you could possibly really feel. It was greatness. He wasn’t cocky, however there was one thing about him.”

Hernández didn’t have a single main league inning on his résumé, however Cashman noticed an identical ultracompetitive nature between the pitcher and Jordan.

“I really feel like while you’re round profitable folks, they emit an aura about them,” Cashman stated. “And, earlier than El Duque knew what he may do round right here, he was emitting that aura. He had a presence.”

Cashman wasn’t alone in immediately noticing Hernández’s presence, his confidence and his skills. He was so excited to pitch once more, so excited to be a Yankee and, truthfully, was in all probability excited to indicate off. He had been the king of the mound in Cuba, a baseball-obsessed nation the place he had a gaudy 129-47 document 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 targeted and fascinating. While engaged on my e-book “The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever,” there have been fixed reminders that Hernández was essentially the most fascinating participant on that historic group. I devoted a chapter to him and referred to as it “International Man of Mystery” as a result of he made an already nice group much more imposing, as a result of he was a really savvy and gutsy pitcher and since he was a pleasure to watch.

“Couldn’t cease watching him,” stated David Cone, one other Yankees pitcher recognized for his creativity. “Wanted to see what he did subsequent.”

How may El Duque pitch so successfully with a leg kick that might 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 received the Yankees’ most essential sport of the season in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.

He was proof against strain.

“I do not suppose anyone has written the best film script for this man,” stated catcher Jorge Posada. “There’s no method to actually inform his story and what he needed to undergo to get right here and pitch for the Yankees. That’s only a film ready to occur. It was unbelievable.”

Covering Hernández in 1998 was extremely entertaining, a pleasant present each time he stared at a batter. He was simply totally different. Even the best way he ready for video games was totally different. Before he picked up a baseball, he would do wind sprints, leg kicks and calisthenics within the outfield, making different pitchers appear to be weekend warriors.

Most pitchers do not converse to reporters earlier than begins, however Hernández was chatty. Before his fifth begin, he casually informed reporters that Fidel Castro, the Cuban chief and a person he reviled, would very doubtless watch him pitch towards the Mets, and he added, “He is aware of every thing.” After speaking and speaking, Hernández proceeded to throw 141 pitches throughout eight innings. And he wished to maintain pitching.

“In Cuba, you do not have a aid pitcher each outing,” Hernández stated. “In Cuba, it is win or die.”

The teammate with the perfect perspective on Hernández was Posada, who was as robust 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 method to describe El Duque.

“He was simply perfection,” Posada stated. “He was so — nicely, perfection is a phrase, however I’m unsure it is the phrase I’m in search of. He wasn’t nervous. He went via hell and now he is residing his childhood dream. He was simply saying: ‘I’m right here. This is the perfect time of my life and I’m not going to take something without any consideration.’ Yeah, I assume perfection is the phrase I wished to make use of.”

In the emotional and feisty Posada, the Yankees had the perfect catcher to deal with Hernández. Posada revered Hernández and felt a right away kinship with him as a result of Posada’s father had additionally defected from Cuba in 1968.

“I informed him all about my Dad and, of course, it introduced us nearer,” Posada stated.

Hernández referred to as Posada “a brother for me then and a brother for me at this time,” they usually had been half of a really tight-knit Yankees’ group. After a tumultuous 1-4 begin by which Manager Joe Torre and Cashman puzzled about their job safety, the Yankees cruised via an idyllic season. Pressure? What strain? The Yankees stored profitable, so there was little stress. Until Game 4 of the ALCS Until they trailed the Indians two video games to at least one in a best-of-seven sequence.

“It was actually the primary time all 12 months that we had been frightened,” stated outfielder Paul O’Neill.

Enter El Duque, an unflappable pitcher who handled the pressure-packed sport the identical as another begin. On the morning of Game 4, Torre was consuming breakfast within the lodge 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 factor,” stated Derek Jeter. “And, if you concentrate on it, he was the proper man for that sport.”

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 turned the El Duque Show as he pitched seven scoreless innings in a 4-0 win.

It isn’t hyperbole to say that Hernández saved the Yankees. Had the Yankees faltered, they might have been one loss away from elimination, and the strain would have been insufferable. The incessant query would have been: Could the group that received 114 common season video games flop? With all that the Yankees had achieved, that might have been a disaster they’d not confronted all season. Instead, El Duque guided the Yankees.

“I had strain,” Hernández stated. “But I had no worry.”

El Duque gave the Yankees a lot a couple of win that tied the sequence. In the relieved clubhouse, it was evident that Hernández had additionally given the Yankees their swagger again. For 48 tense hours, the Yankees had been an uncomfortable bunch who puzzled if their outstanding journey was about to finish. It did not. It did not as a result of of El Duque, essentially the most compelling character in my e-book and essentially the most fascinating participant on the best group ever.

Jack Curry’s new e-book, “The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever,” was launched on May 2.

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