There was a nostalgic feeling in the air. The old lions of the Yankee Dynasty of the late 1990s – many of the key players – were on hand.
It brought me back to the days of my childhood and I relished every minute of it.
Bernie Williams Night last Sunday was one of the most amazing and invigorating experiences I’ve had as a Yankee fan. I’d say it was on the same level as the World Series ring ceremony I attended in 2010.
I felt the need to be there, given my past history with this great man.
The great number 51 at long last took his rightful spot in Monument Park behind the wall in centerfield, where he patrolled for 15 years in pinstripes.
Obviously I could go on and on forever talking about Williams’ accomplishments as a New York Yankee. Instead of that, however, I’ll muse about and share some pictures from his special night.
Thank you Bernie
Even before stepping foot into the ballpark, you just knew this night was going to be all about number 51.
Stopping to capture a moment from 1998
While walking to my seat, I happened to stumble across this picture in the concourse of Williams high-fiving third base coach Willie Randolph in a home run trot. Even though I’ve seen it before, having been to the stadium countless times, I had to pause and capture a picture. What with it being his night, I felt it necessary.
Little did I know Randolph would later appear as part of the pregame festivities.
On a side note, in 1998 Williams high-fived Randolph 26 times during the regular season and three more times in the postseason, rounding third in home run trots.
All fans received this neat collectible card after making their way through the turnstiles.
They brought the good guys.
Roy White, Williams’ first base coach for a huge chunk of his career. He was there.
Gene “Stick” Michael, who became the Yankees’ General Manager the same year Williams made his Major League Baseball debut, 1991. He was there.
Joe Torre, Williams’ only manager throughout his career. He was there.
Randolph, and former teammates Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez. They were all there.
David Cone, Williams’ teammate from 1995-2000 and Yankee Yapping shout out artist. He was there.
The great closer, Mariano Rivera, made the drive in from New Rochelle.
And the Yankees saved the biggest surprise for last.
The return of the Captain
I still kick myself to this day. Sure the tickets were criminally expensive. Of course they would be. It was Derek Jeter’s last game at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 25 of last year.
The price of admission would have been worth it given the way that game ended. Jeter heroically, as he had done many times before, won the game with a clutch hit.
Understandably, I was disappointed I wasn’t there to witness it live. And I was saddened I would never see Jeter at Yankee Stadium again.
But lo and behold, the last guest at Bernie Williams night was Jeter. The captain incarnate. Admittedly, I did not think Jeter would make an appearance so soon after retiring, for that very reason – it was too soon. Jeter always struck me as the type who would wait awhile to return to big ballpark in the Bronx for a special night of this kind.
But, I was wrong. Not only was Jeter there, he strutted out like he owned the place. With the top couple buttons of his shirt unbuttoned underneath his sport coat, he looked like a million bucks.
What made it better, I thought, was the comment from a fan behind me, once Jeter was announced:
“Suit ‘em up!!!!!” the fan yelled, loud enough for everyone within a 10-mile radius to hear.
Not a bad idea, considering his heir at shortstop, Didi Gregorius, had six errors on the season entering Saturday night’s game against the Athletics in Oakland.
Overall it was such a wonderful, indescribable feeling, seeing Jeter at the game. I may not have been there for his last hurrah, but I can say I was there when he made his triumphant return to New York to pay respect to his old friend.
It was outstanding; maybe the best speech from any of the players that have been honored since 2013, when the Yankees reintroduced retiring numbers and nailing plaques to the hallowed Monument Park walls.
He was sure to thank everyone and spoke directly from the heart.
Williams tossed out the honorary first pitch – a pretty good throw – to boisterous cheers from the crowd.
Unfortunately no magic from number 51 rubbed off on the Yankees. The visiting Texas Rangers had their way with starter Chris Capuano. Texas touched him up for three runs on eight hits over 4 1/3 innings. Capuano finished with four strikeouts and didn’t walk a batter – but also didn’t impress anyone.
The Yanks only plated two runs, both of which came off the bat of catcher Brian McCann. In the bottom of the first McCann singled home Chase Headley and Alex Rodriguez, but that was all the offense the Yankees could muster.
It continued. You know the trend I’m talking about.
The Yankees losing on special days. At the end of 2013, the San Francisco Giants beat the Yankees on a day the pinstripers exalted their own Mariano Rivera.
Tino Martinez, Goose Gossage and Paul O’Neill suffered the same fate in 2014. They were honored with heartwarming pregame ceremonies and Monument Park plaques, but the team just could not finish the job. The Yankees lost each of those games, most of the time without putting up an offensive fight.
The trend was bucked on Aug. 23 of last year when Joe Torre had his day. The Yanks put an end to the special day losing streak, beating the Chicago White Sox 5-3.
But on Sept. 7 – Jeter’s big day – they went right back to losing. The Kansas City Royals came in and put up two runs.
Two. The same number Jeter wore on his back his entire career. And the same amount of runs it took the Royals to beat the Bronx Bombers. It ended 2-0.
With special days lined up for Jorge Posada (Aug. 22 vs. Cleveland), Andy Pettitte (Aug. 23 vs. Cleveland) and Willie Randolph (June 20 vs. Detroit, also Old Timers’ Day), the Yankees at least have the chance to turn the tables.
But the offense will have to wake up in order for that to happen.
The Yankees have been outscored 29-9 on special days from Rivera’s day in 2013 up to Williams’ day last weekend.
The final thought
Was it disappointing the Yankees lost on Bernie Williams Night?
No doubt. It would have been nice to see a win.
Is it the end of the world for the 2015 Yankees as we know it?
Not at all.
The Yankees are lucky. Fortunate in the sense that the American League Eastern Division is so poor, that even with a record that barely hangs above .500, they’re in first place. The Boston Red Sox, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays all have problems.
Each team is struggling, and into the month of June it’ll be interesting to see which team – if any – heats up and pulls ahead in the race.
In the meantime, as I sat in the bleachers and watched the Rangers beat the Yankees after Williams’ nice ceremony, I had this image in my head.
Almost a clear vision.
I pictured the old Yankees who were in attendance. Jeter, O’Neill, Martinez, Cone, Williams, Pettitte, Rivera, Posada and even Torre. All of the dynasty players and their skipper, I imagined, in a luxury suite, watching the current Yankees.
Watching the current Yankees, and laughing. Laughing at how bad they are. Snickering to one another and saying,
“Can you believe they can’t beat these guys? We would’ve won this game in the first inning.”
Which is true. They certainly would have beaten the Rangers down. The Rangers came in at 20-23, and the Yankees of my youth generally never lost to a team of that below .500 caliber.
Then again, the dynasty Yankees could likely have taken down the 2015 Yankees, had they been matched up against one another. In fact, they probably could have beaten any team currently in the league.
They were that good. It was nice to relive those glory days for a night.
These past few days have been reminiscent of another era.
The old days of Roger Clemens beaning Mike Piazza in the head came to mind. I couldn’t get the image of Piazza standing up to Clemens after he chucked that hunk of broken bat at him during the 2000 World Series. Even my personal memory of attending the very first Subway Series at Yankee Stadium during the regular season in 1997 echoed through my brain. The battle for bragging rights in New York was on this past weekend.
And for the first time in quite a few years, this Yankee fan felt it.
Whether it was in the Poughkeepsie Journal newsroom, listening to sports talk radio in the car, or going on Facebook and Twitter, talk of the showdown between the Yankees and Mets in the Bronx this past weekend dominated my life. Mostly I was forced to listen to how the Mets had won 11 straight games entering the Subway Series, how they are currently the team to beat and how Matt Harvey is the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Believe me, I took it all.
What most folks who talked up the Mets might have overlooked was the fact that, prior to the Subway Series, the Yankees had won seven of 10 on the road. They had taken one from the Baltimore Orioles, swept the Tampa Bay Rays in three games and took three of four from the Detroit Tigers.
Perhaps the hot start the Mets got off to was more impressive, and thus they got a little more ink than the Yankees.
But there the Yankees were on Friday to remind everyone who they are. In particular, Mark Teixeira and Michael Pineda made their presence felt. Teixeira clubbed two home runs of Jacob deGrom, the reigning National League Rookie of the Year, while Pineda tossed 7 2/3 strong innings, giving up one run to the Mets on five hits. Pineda also struck out seven and kept the ball around the plate, walking just one batter.
It brought the Mets’ winning streak to a screeching halt, though it didn’t stop the orange and blue loyalists from reminding the pinstripers that Harvey (excuse me, Jesus Christ) was starting the following day.
Yet, their yapping was backed up and Harvey delivered Saturday. The ace silenced the Yankee bats, giving up just two runs on five hits over 8 2/3 innings. Harvey struck out seven Yankees and walked two en route to his fourth win of the season, proving that yes, he has a bright future and is a bona fide stud.
That brought us to Sunday: The rubber game. The game that decided who got the bragging rights until September, when the Yankees and Mets hook up at Citi Field.
For the first time in a long time, I really wanted the Yankees to win this game. Not that I don’t want them to win any other games; in fact, I want them to win every game, like most passionate fans.
This one, however, I truly wanted. The voices of the trash talk that was spoken, posted and tweeted at me by Mets fans ringed over and over, almost as if they were taunting me. That feeling was only fueled when ESPN opened its broadcast with a shot of a Mets fan holding a sign that read “A-Rod wears Matt Harvey underwear.”
Cute. But, not really that creative. I’m almost certain I heard that one back in 2005, when Chuck Norris “Facts” were a thing.
Alex Rodriguez, me and the Yanks got the last laugh, as it was. Rodriguez homered off Mets starter Jonathan Niese, his 659th career tater, as he continues to creep up on Willie Mays for fourth place on Major League Baseball’s all-time home runs list. Rodriguez finished the series finale 2 for 4 with two RBI and a run scored.
Now, the Empire State Building is shining in Yankee colors because the Bombers took the series.
The feeling is great, I’ll admit — not just the feeling of the Yankees winning, but the feeling of caring about the Subway Series again. Getting caught up in the rivalry was, in a word, fun this weekend. It’s what baseball is all about.
Maybe the players got wrapped up in it, too. It’s possible. Rodriguez even told the press after the game, “The buzz was incredible. I just felt a lot of energy in the building. It was fun … To feel that energy, it was cool.”
Whomever the social media directors are for both clubs also got enveloped in the cross-town rivalry.
Which, if I’m not mistaken, is a first.
The Mets are a team that, for at least right now, is competitive. Like 2000, the year they captured the National League pennant and faced off with the Yankees in the World Series, they have good players. More specifically the Mets have solid, young pitchers, and the organization probably feels this is the time to turn it around and return to relevance.
I can say for sure, that’s how Mets fans feel, and in a lot of ways they have the right to feel that way.
At the same time, it’s still April and there are still 143 games remaining on the schedule. Plus, the Mets clearly have other facets of their game to work on. Case and point, their defense. A team usually cannot commit four errors in a game and expect to win.
I can only hope that when September rolls around and the Yankees go to Flushing, it’s just as competitive and the rivalry is once again at a peak.
Not to mention if both the Yanks (11-8) and Mets (14-5) are racing towards a division pennant or a playoff berth when they next meet, it’ll be even more riveting.
Reason number 112,975,921 why we love the Yankees: They reenacted a scene from the classic movie “The Sandlot.”
This past week, Major League Baseball posted the video.
I can remember going on a class field trip as a kid, and on the bus ride there watching “The Sandlot.” I instantly fell in love with it. I think it’s one of my favorite baseball movies because baseball is a kid’s game. “The Sandlot” really portrays how fun it is to get together with your friends and play baseball during your growing years.
Watching it for the first time it reminded me (and still to this day it reminds me) of how I played baseball with my own friends growing up; in a lot of ways I was watching me and my own friends.
I think many folks who grew up playing the game among friends can probably relate to everything they see in the movie.
There’s always the loudmouth, like Ham Porter. There’s always the shy, new kid on the block who has no idea what he’s doing but he’s too nice so he has to be included, like Smalls. Usually there’s a kid who just goes along with whatever everyone else is saying, like Yeah Yeah. There’s a lovable nerd, like Squints. And generally there’s a gifted athlete in the group, like Benny the jet.
Jacoby Ellsbury made a great Squints. Brett Gardner was OK as Smalls, but not that convincing. It’s easy to tell he’s not an actor, but if Gardner can put on a 20 home run, 80 RBI, .285 batting average and 50 stolen base performance for 2015, we’ll all be fine with it.
The best performance, in this writer’s humble opinion, was that of Brian McCann. His portrayal of Ham was spot-on, from his facial expressions down to his delivery. It was perfect.
I liked the scene the Yankees chose to reenact. It was fitting, I suppose, because the Yankees have obvious ties to Babe Ruth. So much of “The Sandlot” had to do with Ruth, from the signed baseball down to the great bambino visiting Benny the jet in his dreams.
And really, who honestly knew about all of Ruth’s nicknames before they saw the movie? I know I didn’t. “The Sandlot” was there to fill me in.
“The king of crash, man.”
My favorite scene in the movie had to be when they played a “night game” on the fourth of July. Benny rounds up the collection of young ballplayers and tells them, “get your glove, let’s go. Night game.” They leave the fun of the neighborhood block party and go to the sandlot to play a game, using the fireworks to see, given there were no lights at their little “baseball heaven.” I still love Smalls’ grown-up voiceover explaining the scene:
“There was only one night game a year. On the fourth of July, the whole sky would brighten up with fireworks, giving us just enough light for a game. We played our best then, because I guess we all felt like the big leaguers, playing under the lights of some great stadium. Benny felt like that all the time. We all knew he was going to go on to bigger and better games, because every time we stopped to watch the sky on those nights, he was there to call us back.
“You see, for us, baseball was a game. But for Benjamin Franklin Rodriguez, baseball was life.”
The outtakes were just as funny.
It’s good to see the team having fun. Team chemistry is important because as we saw in 2009, it leads to great things.
And speaking of great things, opening day is rapidly approaching. So beat the drum and hold the phone, because the Yankees will be playing ball at 1:05 p.m. Monday at the big ballpark in the Bronx against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Everyone remembers the 1998 Yankees for being winners. Winners during the regular season, winners during the postseason and of course winners of the World Series.
The ’98 champions get a lot of credit for what they accomplished on the field, but not enough credit for being feisty and gritty — which, I think, is why they were so successful.
I can recall watching a game with my family on a September night in 1998. The 11th. Just three years to the day before tragedy struck our nation. Yankees vs. the Toronto Blue Jays in the Bronx. Roger Clemens, who a year later would become a pinstriper himself, beaned third baseman Scott Brosius with a fastball.
Afterwards, madness ensued.
The Yankees’ ’98 fight with the Baltimore Orioles is one of the most remembered melees in the Bronx Bombers’ history, but this fight deserves some props:
My new job, which was well-documented in my last post, has been keeping me as busy as a bee these days. Thus, leaving me less time for Yankee Yapping.
However, I happen to have a few minutes right now and figured, why not touch on some offseason happenings?
Max Scherzer went to the Nationals. Not surprising the Yankees didn’t sign him, I suppose. I heard rumblings that Stephen Strasburg might be on the trade block on account of this signing. If the Yankees aren’t going to give up Luis Severino or Aaron Judge, who just made baseball’s top 100 prospect list, I’d say try and set a package for Strasburg. Keep in mind James Shields is still out there, too.
Ernie Banks passed away. Rest easy, Mr. Cub. Banks, a true gentleman of the game, hit 512 home runs over the course of his illustrious career. I’ll most remember his hilarious appearance on “Married…with Children.” At the opening of a sports bar, Al Bundy took several photos with Mr. Cub; so many, in fact, that he blinded him with his camera!
Derek Jeter is still retired. We are all still sad. I do need to get my hands on his new book, though, and give it a read.
Stephen Drew is going to be a Yankee next year. Upsetting, I know. However, I’m interested to see if he will perform better from actually participating in spring training this year.
Alex Rodriguez has been strangely quiet. Good. Let’s, uhh, keep it that way.
CC Sabathia says he is healthy. Of course what he says and what’s real are two different things. I say one more setback and it could be time for the big man to pack it in. Yet, I am hopeful he closes my mouth by coming back and winning 20 games.
Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow. Elbow-watch will go into effect on Feb. 20 when pitchers and catchers report to camp. Lord, I don’t ask you for much: Let Tanaka’s elbow be healthy and serviceable for all of 2015.
Ichiro signed with the Miami Marlins. Good for Ich’. I’m pulling for him to reach 3,000 MLB hits – although take into consideration that he has over 4,000 hits if you combine his work from Japan.
There are 65 days until opening day. That’s according to the Yankees official Facebook page, which literally lets us know every single day how many days are left until opening day.
Deflategate happened. And then we heard, “You can’t deflate a baseball.” Hmm. True. But, there are ways to cheat in every sport. Which leads me into my next point…
Tom Brady cannot be compared to Derek Jeter. Not that anyone is comparing them. You can’t compare them. It’s like trying to put Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker up against Heath Ledger’s Joker. There is no comparing them. Which also is a nice segue:
The Super Bowl is tomorrow. And Brady is probably thankful he’s not facing Eli Manning again. To me, this game has no appeal. I dislike the Seahawks – mainly because of their “we’re better than you” attitude. Plus, needless to say, I am not a Patriots fan. So whoever wins, I lose. At least after tomorrow it’ll be over. Then soon enough, baseball will be back.
Thanks for reading, folks. I’ll try and have more for you in February!
The Yankees’ offseason thus far hasn’t been as eyebrow-raising as last year. In fact most has been quiet on the pinstripe front, save for the addition of Didi Gregorius as Derek Jeter’s heir at shortstop, the signing lefty flamethrower Andrew Miller, and the re-signing of Chase Headley to play third base. There have been more significant subtractions than additions, putting it into perspective, what with the departures of Brandon McCarthy, David Robertson and Francisco Cervelli.
Lately the conversation seems to be surrounding big ticket free agent starter Max Scherzer, and whether or not the Yankees will make a run to try and ink him. Your guess is as good as mine. General Manager Brian Cashman has pledged several times that the organization has no plans to pursue Scherzer, but keep this in the back of your head: they are still the Yankees. Just when you think they are nowhere near landing a top tier free agent, they swoop in at the last minute and snatch their man.
And if you don’t believe that, just ask Mark Teixeira. It happened to him nearly six years ago.
While the Yankees haven’t been making the loudest amount of noise this winter, my life was shaken up recently – shaken up in a good way.
For the past three-plus years I have been working for The Examiner, a local newsweekly in Westchester County, N.Y.
It’s been a great experience reporting on the local sports scene in Westchester. But a few weeks ago a new opportunity presented itself to me, I took advantage, and I am moving on to a new job. I’ll now be a full-time sports reporter for the Poughkeepsie Journal, a daily newspaper a couple counties north of Westchester in Dutchess County, N.Y., which coincidently is where I grew up.
The clichéd phrase I keep repeating to myself is, “Who says you can’t go home?”
The Poughkeepsie Journal is the oldest paper in the state of New York and the third-oldest newspaper in this country – just to give you an idea of how prestigious and renowned the Journal really is. What’s more, I think I made some history, because I was told I am the first new person PoJo has hired in the sports department since 2006.
These past few weeks have been draining on me; the interview process, waiting to know if I had landed the job. It was certainly a relief when it was offered to me a week and a half ago, although I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous taking on this new challenge. As a professional I obviously gave The Examiner notice that I was leaving and have finished up my duties there.
I won’t soon forget the lessons I learned over the past few years; the opportunities The Examiner has afforded me. From interviewing Eli Manning a handful of times and covering the Hudson Valley Renegades each summer, all the way down to high school hoops and lacrosse – it’s been a blast.
Not only will I remember the lessons and experiences from these past few years, but I won’t forget the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. That’s the beauty of life – those people and what they’ve done for you never leave; they stick with you for the long haul. And since I have the forum here, I’d like to take this time and individually thank those who helped get me to where I am, because I didn’t get here by myself.
First of all, I’d like to take a page out of the great Mariano Rivera’s book and thank God.
I have been doing what I love to do for a long time now and I wouldn’t be where I am without The Lord’s blessings. He provided me with writing and reporting talent worthy of this new job. I’ve been in constant contact with God by way of prayer these last few weeks, and my prayers have been answered. If I don’t say it enough, thank you, Lord. For everything.
Thanks to my parents. For always believing in me and being patient with my trying ways throughout my life and through this whole process of job changing. Your constant faith in me has gone a long way and will continue to go a long way in the years to come. Stating the obvious, but I wouldn’t be here without both of you.
Thanks to my sisters, and their kids: my nephew Ryan and my niece Avery. The four of you have given me a lot of support and love for the longest time. Ryan and Avery have also shown me that life can be simple and uncomplicated – though that probably has to do with the fact that Ryan is a 3-year-old and Avery just turned 1. Either way, the love hasn’t gone unnoticed.
At the same time, special thanks goes out to both my grandfathers (I lost one of them earlier this year, yet he always loved that I was working and writing, and I know he would be proud). Additionally, thanks to my entire family. You’re all one of a kind, that’s for sure. You have all taken good care of me over the years, and it hasn’t gone unappreciated.
To all my friends; past and present – thank you. There are far too many to name, which is probably a good thing. You can never have enough friends. I may not see or speak to as many of you as I’d like to nowadays; understandable because we’re grown-ups, and time is never on our side. But that hasn’t stopped most of you from reading my articles over the years and giving me feedback. Thank you for always letting me know I’m a good writer. It helped me land this job.
I can’t fill out this list without thanking Mike Perrota, my main journalism instructor from Mercy College. Naming me sports editor of The Impact in my second-to-last year at Mercy was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. Perrota, you have taught me the ins and outs, the dos and don’ts. I hope I’ve made you proud since I graduated in 2010, and I am glad we have remained friends ever since.
A big thank you is owed to Rob DiAntonio. Thanks for bringing me in as a freelancer with North County News on Nov. 5, 2010: the DeMatteo Bowl between Yorktown and Clarkstown North at White Plains high school – I won’t forget that. Thanks for also helping me realize my potential a little bit. I still have this e-mail saved, by the way:
I can’t go without thanking my friend Sean Faye, an outstanding reporter in his own right and my college newspaper teammate who recommended me to The Examiner. Your word opened the door to a new opportunity that I was able to take advantage of and make my own. I wouldn’t have done it without you.
To Adam Stone, the publisher of The Examiner – thank you. Professionally I’ve been in great hands these last few years. You have been a tremendous boss; as good as they come. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me at The Examiner, including speaking highly of me to PoJo. I would recommend any young sports journalist out there to go to The Examiner to cut their teeth. I know first-hand how much better a reporter can become from working at The Examiner – and not only do I think I became a better journalist working for you, I became a better person. Thanks for everything.
To Andy Jacobs and Ray Gallagher, the two sports editors I’ve worked closely with these last few years: thank you. I hope I didn’t drive you both incredibly nuts – I don’t think I did, because I always met my deadlines accordingly, and we always got along so nicely. The two of you have been a pleasure to work with, keeping me as busy as a bee with games to cover. It’s been an honor, gentlemen.
To my colleague David Propper: many thanks. We spent countless Tuesday mornings chatting about coaches and games; reminiscing on sports coverage, almost as if we were two old time journalists reflecting on the “good ol’ days.” It’s been great, my friend. Stay in touch.
My fellow reporter over at the Yorktown News, Mike Sabini, deserves a thank you for always supporting me and being one of my biggest fans. Likewise, I’ve been a fan of your work. I’ll miss hearing your voice at the Peekskill basketball games, but I will keep reading your bylines in the Yorktown News. Keep in touch, my friend.
Another fellow reporter of mine earned a shout out: Mike Zacchio. You were one of the only ones I really opened up to about going after this new job and you did nothing but encourage me and root for me. I can’t thank you enough for calling me “an awesome reporter who deserves this” and saying PoJo would “be lucky to have me.” I hope to see you at some games down the road that we both might be covering. And don’t think I’ve forgotten about our karaoke night – it will happen and we will sing “Runaround Sue” together.
There’s a coach out there whom I’ve known for the past few years, and he deserves a real hat tip. Coach Lance DeMarzo of Kennedy Catholic high school in Somers – you are a great man; as classy as it gets. Thanks for staying in touch all the time, making my job easier in the process. When I told you that, if all coaches were like you I’d have it really easy, I meant it 100 percent. I am truly going to miss you telling me that your team loves picking up The Examiner just to read my articles. That sort of spirit gives a reporter a positive feeling.
I should mention Jared Sandberg, the former manager of the Hudson Valley Renegades, former MLB player with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and nephew of Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. The second time I interviewed Jared he asked which publication I was with. I told him the obvious, that I was with The Examiner, and he told me that not only did he read my first article about the Renegades, but he liked it. Again, that type of giveback never ceases to give a journalist a wonderful feeling.
To the readers of Yankee Yapping and all of my work in general, thank you. Thanks to you guys my writing has grown better, and this blog has blown up to the point that David Cone is mentioning it during Yankee telecasts. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t be anywhere without all of you.
And last but never the least, I’d like to thank everyone at the Poughkeepsie Journal, particularly my friend and new colleague Phil Strum, who recommended me for the position. I can assure you I am going to work as hard as I can to ensure the best sports coverage. I will give it my all.
Now that I’ve exhausted myself of thanks and praise to all those who rightfully deserve it from me, and I’ve all but turned the page, it’s on to the next chapter…
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.