Hernandez, Orlando

▪ 2000

      When the New York Yankees completed a four-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves in October 1999 to win their second consecutive World Series, leading the way was Orlando Hernández, a pitcher who, less than two years earlier, was out of baseball completely. Banned from the game in his native Cuba, Hernández had been working in a psychiatric hospital before defecting to the U.S. in late 1997. In 1999, at the end of his first full season in Major League Baseball (MLB), Hernández was used as the Yankees' number one starter in the play-offs, and the man known to fans as “El Duque” responded to the challenge by stifling some of the best offenses in the game.

      Hernández was born Oct. 11, 1969, in Villa Clara, Cuba. The son of a baseball player, Hernández was himself a gifted player, as was his younger half-brother, Livan, also a pitcher. With his distinctive high-leg kick, Orlando was the ace of the Cuban national team, and during his career in Cuba, he amassed a won-lost record of 129–47, the best in the nation's history. In 1995 Livan defected to the U.S. Suspecting that Orlando would try to follow his half-brother's lead, the Cuban government banned him from playing baseball for the rest of his life. He took a job as a therapist in a psychiatric hospital in Havana, working for about $8 a month and living in a shack behind a friend's home. Meanwhile, Livan was pitching for the 1997 World Series champion Florida Marlins and had been named the World Series Most Valuable Player (MVP).

      Two months later, on Dec. 26, 1997, Orlando Hernández and seven other people secretly boarded a 6-m (20-ft) boat and headed north for The Bahamas. Hernández, under the advice of an agent, sought asylum in Costa Rica rather than in the U.S. Had he accepted a U.S. visa, he would have been subject to baseball's amateur draft and forced to bargain with one team. With a foreign visa, however, he was considered a free agent under MLB rules.

      Hernández signed a four-year, $6.6 million contract with the Yankees, and after a brief stint in the minor leagues to begin the 1998 season, he joined the parent club and put together an impressive 12–4 record with an earned run average (ERA) of 3.13 before staging two dominating performances in the postseason. After a solid, but not spectacular regular season in 1999 (17–9, 4.12 ERA), Hernández stepped to the fore again. Pitching in the first game of each of the Yankees' three play-off series, he set the tone for his team, winning two of the games—including game one of the World Series—and holding the opposition to three runs in the other. After winning the decisive fourth game in the American League Championship Series (ALCS), he was named ALCS MVP. With just two seasons in the big leagues, Hernández had an amazing postseason record of 5–0 with an ERA of 1.02.

Anthony G. Craine

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▪ Cuban baseball player
in full  Orlando Hernández Pedroso 
born October 11, 1965, Villa Clara, Cuba

      Cuban baseball pitcher who amassed a won-lost record of 129–47, the best winning percentage in the history of the Cuban League. After defecting from Cuba in 1997, he pitched in the major leagues, where he gained a reputation as a “big game” pitcher, posting a 9–3 record and a 2.55 earned run average in 19 playoff appearances between 1998 and 2005.

      Hernández was the son of Arnaldo Hernández, an acclaimed pitcher in the Cuban leagues during the 1960s, and, as Orlando's own pitching talent emerged, he inherited his father's nickname, “El Duque” (the duke). He pitched for the Havana-based Industriales of the Cuban League and was a member of National Series championship teams in 1992 and 1996. He joined the Cuban national team in 1988 and starred on the gold medal-winning 1992 Olympic team.

      In 1995 Hernández's younger half-brother Liván, who was also a pitcher on the Cuban national team, defected to the United States. Suspecting that Orlando would try to follow his brother, the Cuban government banned him from playing baseball for the rest of his life. He fled Cuba by boat on December 26, 1997, and eventually made his way to the United States, where he signed with the New York Yankees and made his major league debut in 1998.

      Hernández's unique pitching style, which included a distinctive high-leg kick and an array of pitches that came from several different arm angles, made him an immediate success in the major leagues. He helped the Yankees win three consecutive World Series titles (1998–2000) and was named Most Valuable Player of the 1999 American League Championship Series. He signed with the Chicago White Sox in 2005 and was again part of a World Series championship team. After the 2005 season Hernández was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, who in turn traded him to the New York Mets after only nine starts.

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Universalium. 2010.

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