When I was a kid I had an Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez poster hanging on my wall. To me he was one of the most unique pitchers the Yankees had, with his unorthodox leg kick and wild arm angles. The fact that he dominated opponents and led the Yankees to victory countless times also made me take a liking to him.
This past Tuesday, ESPN ran its 30 for 30 piece on El Duque and his brother Livan Hernandez entitled Brothers in Exile. There was so much more to the two brothers from Cuba that met the eye. For anyone that missed it or didn’t care to watch it, here’s (sort of) a BuzzFeed style article filled with did-you-knows and tidbits from the documentary.
The film was jam-packed with the Hernandez brothers’ story, so bear with me in terms of the length of this article and such. Maybe it’ll be so good BuzzFeed will pick it up and hire me, and I’ll get one of those special blue check boxes next to my Twitter name…
Dare to dream.
Anyway, here goes.
1) Orlando and Livan Hernandez are half-brothers
They share the same father, but not the same mother. Their father was a semi-pro pitcher, so you have to figure the baseball genes were passed down. Orlando is 10 years older than Livan, and the two didn’t meet until Livan was five years old.
2) The Duke of Havana
Long before Orlando Hernandez was fooling MLB hitters he was a stud in his native land, Cuba. He racked up 126 wins in the Cuban league throughout his career. His winning percentage was .728, good enough to give him the record for highest winning percentage by a pitcher – a record that still stands today in Cuba.
Orlando pitched for the Industriales, a team much like the Yankees. The Industriales had the best players, were tremendously successful, and maintained a huge fan base. What’s more, Orlando pitched for the Cuban national team from 1988-95. During that span, the team was undefeated in international play.
Becoming a superstar, as it was, Orlando went to visit Livan in school in later years. Livan’s classmates went insane; “fan-boyed” for his brother, because he was the best pitcher in Cuba.
He was the Duke of Havana. El Duque.
3) Times got tough
Cuba was economically dependent on the Soviet Union up until 1990, when the Soviet Union dissolved. Fidel Castro, the Cuban President, declared a “special period” on the island, although the only aspect of this period was poverty – and there is nothing special about that.
The special period didn’t just impact regular folks; baseball players were affected too. Orlando was paid three Cuban pesos per game, and if he played a doubleheader, he was only compensated for one game.
“That was tough,” El Duque described.
To combat poverty, ballplayers strived to play for the international team. That way, they could compete overseas and sell their jerseys for money, as well as accept gifts from fans in private. Players had to accept favors privately, because taking from fans was not permitted.
Resources were so scarce that Livan had to take soap and shampoo from hotels to bring back home. By 1994 the special period morphed into an economic crisis. Tons of people started leaving Cuba on makeshift rafts and boats, in hopes of reaching the United States.
4) Defection by way of Joe Cubas and Juan Ignacio Hernandez
A man by the name of Joe Cubas was the agent that recruited players to defect to the United States – and yes, it is indeed ironic that his last name is Cubas and he dealt with Cuban ballplayers.
His cousin, Juan Ignacio Hernandez was his helper, and would follow the Cuban national team around the world to scout potential defectors. El Duque said, “The thought of playing baseball in the majors was intriguing. But the thought of defecting also scared me.”
Orlando’s family was a priority. He had a wife and two daughters who he’d lose if he defected.
“I didn’t want to do it because I have two daughters. It was hard, it really was.”
Livan on the other hand was single and was growing tired of the poor conditions in Cuba.
5) Livan defects
In 1995 Livan was pitching for the Cuban national team. The Cubans went over to Japan to work out with the Tokyo Giants; Livan spent 45 days there. Of those 45 days (along with baseball) he spent 20 collecting soap and shampoo to bring back home. Security told him, though, that if they found anything that he was trying to sneak back to the island in his suitcase, he’d no longer be allowed to travel. He had to throw away all the soap and shampoo he’d gathered – which made him angry.
“I don’t want to go through this, anymore,” he said.
On the next trip – which was to Monterrey, Mexico – Livan started the process of defecting. He obtained Cubas’s phone number from a woman asking for autograph, which just goes to show how strict conditions were. Everything had to be done discreetly.
Livan was picked up by Juan Ignacio Hernandez in Monterrey and went to the Dominican Republic from there. In the D.R. all he had to do was gain residency in order to become an MLB free agent. He did just that, and was on the board.
6) Orlando’s thoughts
Livan was free; out of Cuba and about to be taken by an MLB team. He told his brother what was happening and that his mind was made up, to which El Duque responded,
“Don’t worry. I support you no matter what. If that’s what you want to do, go for it.”
7) Livan went to the Marlins, but other teams wanted him
In the Dominican Republic Livan was showcased and sought by the (then) Florida (now) Miami Marlins. A few other teams were watching him, namely the Yankees (shocking, right?) and the Toronto Blue Jays.
Coming from Cuba, the Marlins made the most sense. Miami is a Spanish-speaking city and Livan would likely be most comfortable there. The right-hander signed for $6.5 million with a $250,000 signing bonus. At the time it was the biggest contract given to a Cuban baseball player.
8) After landing the deal, Livan went splurging
Livan never had money before. When he came into the big bucks on account of the contract, Livan bought cars and lived the lifestyle most young, rich and foolish people live; spending money on expensive material. He also started gaining weight; eating at fast food joints such as McDonald’s.
The Marlins kept Livan in the minors for the bulk of the 1996 season as not only way of getting him to shape up, but also a way to spread some discipline on him.
It worked. Livan eventually wised up and everything panned out for him.
9) Back at home, things got unfair
The Cuban government began to feel Orlando might follow in Livan’s footsteps and defect, even though Orlando had a family and made it clear he was afraid to defect. It didn’t matter. He was harassed by Colonel Mesa – the man in charge of security for the national team.
El Duque told Mesa he didn’t support his brother’s decision (in contrast to what he told Livan) but nonetheless he respected him.
After that, Orlando started to suspect something was up.
Juan Ignacio Hernandez cut ties with Cubas, and got arrested for holding false travel documents, hoping to use them to get Orlando to defect. Police found the fake visas and they turned their attention to El Duque.
In fact, they brought him in and interrogated him.
The government wanted Orlando to testify against Juan Ignacio Hernandez, but he wouldn’t do it. Yet, even without El Duque’s testimony, they sentenced Juan Ignacio Hernandez to 15 years behind bars.
El Duque was also sentenced, but not to serve prison time. He was given a lifetime ban from Cuban baseball, essentially for not doing anything.
One cop even went as far as asking him for identification while he was sitting on his own front porch. When Orlando asked why he needed ID, the rude officer said,
“You used to be El Duque, now you’re a nobody.”
10) He wasn’t making a living playing ball – but he still played
Orlando’s feelings were not just hurt; they were shredded and left for dead. When he was banished, he vowed that he would play baseball again. It didn’t matter if “he was 65 or in Haiti,” he said he was going to play baseball again no matter what.
Since he couldn’t step foot on an official field, like the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, El Duque played in unofficial pickup games on Cuban sandlots.
Orlando was basically the Benny “the jet” Rodriguez of his group: the best of all of them, who went on to play bigger and better games, as Scotty Smalls described it in the movie. El Duque didn’t pitch in these pickup games because it wouldn’t have been fair to the other players, but he hit and played the field.
11) Livan makes his mark
In 1997 Livan got the call to the show – and he was impressive, to say the least. He started the year with a 9-0 record, which was the best start from a rookie pitcher since Whitey Ford in 1950. The Marlins captured the National League Wild Card in ’97, and Livan pitched brilliantly.
Brilliant, in fact, was the operative word. In Game 5 of the National League Championship Series he went the distance and pitched the Marlins to a 2-1 win, striking out 15 Atlanta Braves along the way. He took advantage of home plate umpire Eric Gregg’s Grand Canyon-like strike zone. Livan’s 15 strikeouts in Game 5 set an NLCS record for most Ks in a single game.
He had also picked up the W in Florida’s 5-2 victory in Game 3. When it was all said and done, he was named NLCS Most Valuable Player.
It only got better for Livan in the ’97 World Series. He won Game 1, won Game 5 and was subsequently named World Series MVP. In hoisting the trophy over his head, Livan declared,
“I love you, Miami!”
12) A thought provoking World Series win
El Duque watched most of Livan’s excellence from back in Cuba. He was proud his brother was succeeding, but felt bittersweet about it. Orlando thought he could’ve been in the same position Livan was in: playing baseball freely.
He listened to Game 7 of the World Series on the radio, and rejoiced when the Marlins walked off to win the title. But after Livan became a winner, El Duque’s thought process changed; he considered defecting himself.
13) Help from an unlikely source
Cuba’s relations with the Catholic Church improved in ’97. Pope John Paul II visited the island and President Castro allowed the Christmas holiday to legally be celebrated in Cuba for the first time since 1960.
El Duque decided that, since everyone would be preoccupied with the holiday, he would stage his escape on Christmas night; the members of the Coast Guard wouldn’t be as alert and he’d be able to narrowly depart. His best friend Osmany Lorenzo helped orchestrate his flight from the island.
But, give an assist to the Pope.
14) Nerves were in the way
Just because El Duque decided he was fleeing Cuba didn’t make the idea of defecting any less scary. A study showed that between 1959 and 1994 an estimated 16,000 people died at sea attempting to leave Cuba for the United States.
Orlando could’ve made it to the U.S.A. or he could’ve become just another statistic.
He also had to leave his mother and two daughters behind, which pained him.
15) Not an easy exit
On Christmas night ’97 Orlando, his (now second) wife Noris, Lorenzo, and a smattering of other escapees set off for Caibarien – a city in Cuba where many defectors went to try and leave the island. They left Caibarien in a small fishing boat at 7 a.m. on Dec. 26, and had to hit the deck as to not be seen upon departure.
If hiding face down in order to leave the island wasn’t bad enough, the motor on the boat stalled not long after they left, and thus the owner of the boat wanted to turn back. El Duque protested, and the man swam into the water to fix the engine. After he managed to correct the malfunction, they continued on.
Jeesh. Not as simple as just speed-boating away.
16) Like Robinson Crusoe, it was as primitive as can be
The boat took El Duque and the group of runaways to a Bahamian island called Anguilla Cay. There they were to await another boat that was to come and ferry them to the U.S.A.
Seemingly everything was working out, as the first part of the plan had been executed, but they weren’t in the clear just yet. The second boat never came. The group was basically stuck, Gilligan’s Island style waiting for help that wasn’t showing up. El Duque’s wife Noris even noticed makeshift crosses on the island – figuring they were graves.
People had come to Anguilla Cay and never left. The thought struck terror into Orlando and everyone involved. Four days passed before the Coast Guard discovered them and brought them to Nassau, Bahamas.
17) More help
If you were a Cuban refugee, the Bahamas were not where you wanted to be. Cuba had a treaty with the Bahamas stating all refugees in the Bahamas were to be extradited back over to Cuba. When the Coast Guard brought El Duque to the Bahamas, they arrested him.
But he used his phone call wisely.
He dialed up Cubas, who was able to help him. He set up a press conference on Orlando’s behalf, and El Duque finally got to tell his side of the story to the media and the world; that he was trying to reach the United States in hopes of obtaining the freedoms and rights that were stolen from him in Cuba.
By Cubas’s doing, Orlando and his wife were approved for visas. He made sure Lorenzo, his friend, was approved for one as well. From there El Duque gained residency in Costa Rica, thus making him eligible to become an MLB free agent.
Just like Livan, El Duque was set up. But what team would get his services?
18) The big deal
Scouts from multiple MLB teams attended an El Duque tryout staged by Cubas. Orlando wasn’t particularly lighting up the radar guns, topping out around 88-90 mph, but the fact that he wasn’t throwing hard didn’t negate his value.
Gordon Blakeley, a scout for the Yankees, took an interest in him. However, General Manager Brian Cashman was a bit iffy about signing him, coming off a bust in the form of inking Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu. Blakeley assured him not to be afraid to go after him – and added if the Yankees didn’t grab El Duque, they could’ve been missing out on a potential Cy Young Award winner.
El Duque proclaimed his Yankee fandom, and when the Bombers offered him four years and $6.6 million, he gladly took it.
19) Reunited and it feels so good
When everything fell into place for El Duque, he eventually reconnected with Livan. They attended a press conference together, and when they saw each other they embraced. They cried tears of joy. They had a Kodak moment, if you will.
One reporter asked what kind of advice Livan would give Orlando, now that they were both major leaguers living in freedom. Livan’s answer:
“Stay away from McDonald’s!”
20) The Duke of New York
On June 3, 1998 Orlando made his MLB debut at Yankee Stadium. He was nervous, but when he looked up to the stands walking in from taking his warm ups in the bullpen – and saw Cuban flags fluttering around in the stadium’s upper deck – he calmed down. The show of support even brought tears to his eyes.
The first batter he faced in MLB was Quinton McCracken of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. El Duque pitched seven innings, and puzzled every hitter he faced, giving up just one earned run on five hits. He walked two and struck out seven on the way to his first big league win, the Yanks pounding Tampa Bay 7-1.
“He’s a warrior,” Livan said of his brother’s first MLB outing. “He proved it in that game.”
21) Not a simple catch
Jorge Posada mostly caught El Duque in 1998. And in looking at his record and ERA on paper, one would think they had an easy go of it most of the time when they went to work: Orlando finished 1998 with a 12-4 clip and an earned run average of 3.13.
Yet, much like El Duque’s path to the US, it wasn’t smooth sailing through calm seas.
“He wasn’t easy to catch,” Posada said, adding Orlando would shake him off a lot. “I’d go to the mound … Orlando, what do you want to throw?
“I called for the fastball twice and you said no both times!”
Apparently El Duque didn’t want to throw a fastball when Posada called it. He wanted to throw a fastball when a hitter least expected it, to get inside his head.
Very tactical, El Duque was. His numbers and approach gave him a fourth place finish, in fact, for ’98 American League Rookie of the Year.
22) Like brother like brother: playoff hero
The Yankees won a record 114 regular season games in 1998, and made it to the ALCS, where they were pitted up against the team that had eliminated them the year before, the Cleveland Indians. Down two games to one, they turned to El Duque in Game 4, who came up with a spectacular performance of seven shutout innings to lead the Yankees to a 4-0 win, keeping the pinstripers from going down 3-1 in the series.
Unlike Livan, Orlando didn’t capture the LCS MVP in ’98 – that honor went to David Wells. But El Duque did pick up the award the next year, winning the ALCS MVP in 1999 after the Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox in five.
El Duque went on to start Game 2 of the ’98 fall classic against the San Diego Padres. The Yankees were up 1-0 in the series thanks to some grand Game 1 heroics off the bat of Tino Martinez. The Cuban import made sure the Yanks stayed on point, tossing seven innings and letting up just one earned run on six hits.
He walked three and fanned seven on the way to a 9-3 Yankee win.
“He looked like a veteran of 15, 20 years,” teammate Mariano Rivera said.
23) Family first
The Yankees continued their assault on the Padres in Game 3 of the World Series, teetering on the brink of a world title. Yet El Duque’s thoughts were elsewhere. He couldn’t get his daughters, his ex-wife and his mother off his mind, thinking about their hardships back home.
Then finally, he got his chance to reunite with his family.
A woman by the name of Pamela Falk lobbied to bring his daughters, his mother and his daughters’ mother to the states. Falk used the positive relations between Cuba and the Catholic Church to her advantage, reaching out to New York Cardinal Archbishop John O’Connor.
After his conversation with Falk, O’Connor spoke to President Castro about the possibility of El Duque’s family coming to New York. Long story short Castro obliged, and even spoke highly of Orlando, calling him “a good muchacho; one of the glories of Cuba.”
And the rest was history. El Duque’s family was cleared to embark for the Big Apple.
24) A reunion in Teterboro, then a parade down the canyon of heroes
The Yankees swept the Padres in the 1998 World Series, giving the franchise its 24th world championship in history. El Duque found out his family was coming the night the Yanks clinched the series.
Doesn’t get much better than that, does it?
The next night his family landed at the Teterboro airport in New Jersey. El Duque walked right up the runway, to the plane to greet his family. He said he wasn’t nervous, just excited; he hadn’t seen his girls in about a year.
“I’m complete,” he said, embracing his daughters on the steps of the plane. “Finally happy.
His daughters then rode with him in the victory parade in New York City the following day.
“During the parade he was so happy that his family was there to celebrate with him,” Posada described. “He was so emotional during that time; we won but more importantly his family was there.”
His wife Noris couldn’t believe toilet paper rained down from the skyscrapers into the streets of New York – being that in Cuba they didn’t even have toilet paper, whereas in New York it was being thrown from windows.
When the Yankees reached City Hall, El Duque made the brotherly connection:
“I just want to tell you … Last year my brother shouted ‘I love you, Miami!’ And this year I declare, I love you, New York!”
Livan went on to say,
“There are players with 20-year careers who never won the World Series. But my brother and I did.”
25) Never going back
Both Livan and Orlando went on to have careers in MLB that anyone would sign up for. El Duque won three more world titles (two more with the Yankees, 1999-2000; 2005 with the Chicago White Sox) while Livan pitched in over 500 games and became a two-time All-Star.
Both are retired now, but maintain that sibling love. They live near each other in Miami, and both are doing well these days with their families. They can sit on the porch on hot summer nights and smoke fine Cuban cigars together, and share life stories from here on out; reflect on the good ol’ days pitching in the big leagues.
Oh, and neither has since gone back to Cuba – and they’ll never have to.