As baseball is in the clutches of an unexpected and potentially long hiatus, we at Pinstripe Alley are taking the opportunity to catch up on some books related to the Yankees franchise. One great thing about cheering for the Yankees is that there is no shortage of excellent work about the organization and its numerous legendary and interesting players.
During the offseason I invited anyone interested to read The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World he Created. A month later we posted questions, and an open discussion for anyone who has read the book. I received more emails based off that book topic than any other article I’ve written for Pinstripe Alley, but we always encourage you to put your feedback in the comments and FanPost sections to open the discussion and debate up among all the Pinstripe Alley readers.
For our current time without baseball, I am reading about a former Yankee that was once forced into a hiatus during the prime of his career by his own government. The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream, by Steve Fainaru and Ray Sanchez chronicles the life of Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. I originally read this book about six years ago, and it was an amazing story that went much deeper into the life of one of my favorite Yankees than anything I had read or heard before. This book takes a deep dive into the life of El Duque as he rose to become one of, if not the best pitcher in the history of Cuban Baseball before landing with the Yankees in 1998.
The authors are both intimately familiar with all aspects of the region as Steve Fainaru was the Mexico City bureau chief for The Boston Globe, and Ray Sanchez was also working the same beat for Newsday at the time of El Duque’s harrowing escape from Cuba. They have a perspective that goes beyond just sports as they covered everything newsworthy in Latin America for nearly a decade each around the time of El Duque’s defection.
Fainaru also more recently co-authored League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth, which pulled the cover back on the NFL’s mishandling of its head injury epidemic. The real-life characters and situations from that book formed the baseline for the movie Concussion that came out several years ago starring Will Smith.
Hernandez’s escape from Cuba is framed around the backdrop of his rise through the Cuban system where he had unmatched success pitching in the Cuban league for nearly a decade. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Cuban economy cratered and many of the best players on the island began looking for ways to defect to the United States. The Cuban government took this seriously and aggressively punished players even suspected of planning an escape to the United States. El Duque was caught up in this situation, and it eventually led to his arrival with the New York Yankees. To use a recent phrase coined by the organization, he had long been a “white whale” of their international scouting department.
If you are locked down for the foreseeable future, or just looking for a great book to read then get your hands on a copy of The Duke of Havana. Keep an eye on Pinstripe Alley in the next few weeks for a follow up article where we hope to have an open discussion in comments, or write your own FanPost on the life and career of Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez.