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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #66 Orlando Hernández

From his journey from Cuba to his postseason heroics, “El Duque’s” life reads like a script from a sports movie.

New York Yankees’ pitcher Orlando Hernandez takes a big wind Photo by Howard Earl Simmons/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Name: Orlando P. Hernández
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: October 11, 1965
Yankee Years: 1998-2002, 2004
Primary Number: 26
Yankee Statistics: 139 G, 136 GS, 876.1 IP, 61-40, 3.96 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 116 ERA+, 703 K, 8 CG, 2 SHO, 19.0 rWAR, 14.1 fWAR

Biography

In terms of journeys to the big leagues, there aren’t many more adventurous and better stores than Orlando “El Duque” Hernández. The tale of his escape from Cuba and eventual emergence as a star pitcher and postseason hero — along with a half-brother who went on a similar journey — is the stuff of movies. However, it wasn’t a movie, and Hernández was a great player and a beloved member of three Yankees World Series championship teams.

Rise and Fall of a Cuban Star

The son of Arnaldo Hernández Sr., Orlando was born into a sporting family in his native Cuba. His father played nine seasons in the Cuban National Series, and was regarded as an excellent talent. However, the patriarch of the family was regarded as “less than serious” and never quite made the most of his talent, which he passed along to his sons.

Arnaldo Sr. would have three sons from two different wives that would play in the Cuban league: Arnaldo Jr., Orlando, and Liván. Arnaldo Jr. was regarded as arguably the most talented, but an accident with a machete hampered his prospects, and he played just one season in the National Series, and would later pass away of a brain hemorrhage tragically at age 30 in 1994. El Duque’s half-brother Liván will be touched on more as this piece goes along, but he quite notably carved out a nice career for himself in both Cuba and MLB, all while not growing up with and not having much contact with his half-brothers before the age of 10. Then there was Orlando.

Growing up, Orlando was regarded as arguably the least talented of the Hernández brothers. At age 11, he tried out for an elementary level team at a sports academy only to be told that he didn’t have any ability at the sport. However, Orlando loved baseball, and with the help of an uncle, kept working at it and was eventually accepted into an academy at age 16.

After that, it took five years for Hernández to eventually make it to the Cuban National Series, joining the Industriales — the 12-time champions and winningest team in league history — when he was 21. It took him another couple years to turn into a star. However, by the early ‘90s, he was a force in the National Series, setting the league’s all-time win-loss record at 126-47.

El Duque Windup Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Beyond that, Hernández also became a star for the Cuban national team, helping them win a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Meanwhile as that was going on, Liván was also making a name for himself. He managed to break though to the National Series at just 17 years old in 1992, impressing quickly while playing for Isla de la Juventud. However, Liván also became disillusioned with life in Cuba quicker than Orlando did, and defected in 1995. He would eventually make it to the United States, sign with the Florida Marlins, and help them to a World Series title in 1997, winning MVP honors in both the NLCS and Fall Classic. While it was an impressive ascent for Liván, it also spelled trouble for his half-brother.

Liván’s defection got the Cuban authorities paranoid that more were coming. Orlando was placed under surveillance and was controversially not selected for the national team for the 1996 Olympics, which were set to be held in the US in Atlanta. Besides that, a man named Juan Ignacio Hernández Nodar, a former partner of El Duque’s future agent Joe Cubas, was detained by Cuban authorities during his traves to the island. Hernández Nodar had been trying to set himself up as an agent for Cuban defecting players, but made himself a little too known on the scene, and was soon detained while carrying several documents, including a fake passport with Orlando’s name on it.

While there was no evidence that El Duque himself was in on the scheme, the paranoid authorities took action and banned him for life from baseball. Reduced to working as a physical therapist and unable to play the game that he loved, Orlando eventually decided to take a chance. Over Christmas weekend 1997, he and a group of travelers left Cuba via boat. After somewhat of a harrowing journey, they were intercepted by the US Coast Guard and taken to a detention center in the Bahamas. For a time, it seemed as though the travelers may be sent back to Cuba. However, some legal wrangling and some intervention from Joe Cubas, Orlando was instead allowed to seek asylum in Costa Rica, which would eventually allow him to get the visa that would let him enter the US.

Becoming a Beloved Yankee

With a visa, Hernández was now able to negotiate with MLB teams as a free agent and came to a four-year, $6 million dollar deal with the Yankees ahead of the 1998 season. He started the season in the minor leagues where he shook off the rust to put up solid numbers, mostly with the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. His reputation and results ensured that he would quickly get a shot in the majors whenever opportunity knocked.

In early June, the Yankees were in need of someone to make some rotation starts due to having to skip around David Cone under bizarre circumstances. Cone would have to miss a turn in the order after being bitten on the finger by his mother’s dog.

So the Yankees called up El Duque for his first ever MLB game for their June 3rd game against the Devil Rays. He marked the occasion with seven strikeouts in seven innings, allowing just one run. Six days later, he threw a one-run, complete-game performance against the Expos, and he was off to the races.

In total, Hernández made 21 starts in 1998, putting up a 3.13 ERA (142 ERA+) and a 3.53 FIP in 141 innings pitched, good enough to finish fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. (In retrospect, he should’ve finished higher and maybe even won.) He also shone quite brightly when the playoffs came around. In his postseason debut, with the Yankees down 2-1 to Cleveland in the ALCS, El Duque threw seven shutout innings in Game 4, helping the Yankees even things up and eventually win in six games.

Then in World Series Game 2, El Duque limited the Padres to one run in six innings, with the Yankees eventually sweeping and winning a second championship in three years. On the back of Liván’s MVP heroics the year before, a Hernández brother was now a champion for the second-straight year.

Now a full member of the Yankees’ rotation, El Duque put in a solid year in 1999, albeit not quite as good as his rookie campaign. A 17-9 record with a 4.12 ERA (114 ERA+) helped the Yankees back to the postseason. His performance and distinctive windup also made him the subject of a memorable commercial feature Cone and Luis Sojo.

That June in a game against the Mets, Hernández’s quick thinking allowed him to get an out in rather amusing fashion.

However, his brightest moments in pinstripes arguably came that October. In that year’s ALCS, Hernández was named series MVP after his performances in the five-game series victory over the Red Sox. In Game 1, he went eight innings, allowing three runs, and keeping the Yankees in the game ahead of Bernie Williams’ 10th inning walk-off homer. Then in the clinching Game 5 win, El Duque struck out nine in seven one-run innings, getting the Yankees back to the Fall Classic.

Entrusted with the start for Game 1 in Atlanta, El Duque was excellent again, striking out 10 batters in seven innings and setting the tone for the series sweep over the Braves.

In 2000, Hernández finished with an above-average ERA, as his 4.51 equated to a 107 ERA+, and he finished below .500 for the first time in his career at 12-13. However, he was once again a rotation regular as the Yankees won the AL East and returned to the postseason.

In the ALDS, he was the winning pitcher in Game 3, and then came out of the bullpen as part of the Game 5 victory that dispatched Oakland and punched the Yankees’ ticket to the next round. Hernández picked up two wins in the ALCS against the Mariners, and although he was excellent in Game 2, he was bailed out a bit by the Yankee offense putting up nine runs in the David Justice-led Game 6. He took the loss in the Yankees’ only defeat by the Mets in the World Series, but for the third-straight year, he had been a key rotation pieces on a Yankees championship team.

Struggles, a Departure, and a Return

In 2001, El Duque went through the first total down year of his major league career to that point. His 93 ERA+ was the first below average one, and he was limited to just 16 starts thanks to injuries. He improved enough down the stretch to get into the playoff rotation, where he was solid, and he tossed a commendable 6.1 innings of one-run ball in World Series Game 4. That game wasn’t decided until late though, and it turned out to be his final Fall Classic appearance in pinstripes as the Diamondbacks won in seven.

Hernández bounced back with a nice year in 2002, with his 122 ERA+ being the best since his remarkable 1998 debut. However, he was again hampered by injuries, limiting him to just 22 starts. He would also struggle in the postseason for the first time in his career, and was limited to just two bullpen appearances in the Yankees’ series loss to the Angels.

After the injuries and struggles, the Yankees apparently saw Hernández as somewhat expendable, and traded him in January 2003 to the White Sox, who promptly dealt him to the Expos as part of a trade for Bartolo Colon. However after suffering a partially torn rotator cuff, El Duque would miss the entire 2003 season and would never actually appear for the Expos. After that season, he was a free agent again, and a familiar team came calling.

With the Red Sox also sniffing around, the Yankees offered Hernández an incentive-laden contract for the 2004 season, with El Duque opting to reunite with the team. After missing the start of the season still recovering, he made his season debut in July, and would soon become invaluable to the team’s pitching staff. His 3.30 ERA (137 ERA+) in 84.2 innings helped steady a shakier rotation than expected for AL East champion that won 101 games. I don’t think I need to explain much of what happened in the postseason, with El Duque getting a no-decision in Game 4 of the ALCS in his only October appearance.

Post-Yankee Career and Another Ring

After showing he still had a bit of something, Hernández was picked up by the White Sox on a two-year contract ahead of the 2005 season. While he scuffled, the team didn’t, winning the AL Central. When there, Chicago put El Duque in the bullpen, where he had some important moments, most famously escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the ALDS sweep clincher over Boston.

Later on, in World Series Game 3, El Duque tossed a scoreless ninth inning in Chicago’s 14-inning victory over Houston. The White Sox won the next day to sweep the series, giving Hernández his fourth career World Series title.

Following his regular-season struggles in 2005, the White Sox dealt Hernández to the Diamondbacks ahead of the ‘06 campaign. In Arizona, his downturn continued with a 6.11 ERA in 45.2 innings. That May, they traded him back to New York, albeit to Queens and the Mets. He re-found some form there, putting in a solid rest of 2006, and returning to them to post a nice 2007.

While El Duque continued to try and play a couple more years after that, he never made it back to the big leagues despite stints in the Rangers and Nationals’ organizations. He officially retired in 2011, ending a very nice baseball career. In recent years, Hernández has been an attendee of Old-Timers’ Days, including this past year at the 25th anniversary celebration of the 1998 team.

Orlando Hernández has lived quite a life in baseball, and we’re lucky that a good chunk of it came while he was wearing pinstripes.

Staff Rank: 64
Community Rank: 66
Stats Rank: 84
2013 Rank: 80

References

Baseball Reference

Bjarkman, Peter C. SABR Bio

BR Bullpen, Arnaldo Hernández Sr.

BR Bullpen, Arnaldo Hernández Jr.

BR Bullpen

ESPN. “30 for 30: Brothers in Exile.”

FanGraphs

Hermoso, Rafael. New York Times

Kepner, Tyler. New York Times

Monagan, Matt. Cut4

NPR

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67. Sparky Lyle
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