n many ways it’s as if Charles Dickens and George Orwell took turns crafting the character of El Duque, his role in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and his rise to prominence on a sociopolitically imploding island 90 miles off America’s shore. By the mid-nineties, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sudden end to its billion-dollar subsidies for Cuba had pushed the Carribean nation’s economy into free fall. The looming hardships would result in what Fidel Castro labeled a “special period,” corroding every aspect of daily life—except, Castro asserted, the Cuban people’s resolve and commitment to the cause. There were widespread blackouts and overwhelming energy shortages. Food became scarce and fuel became next to impossible to find. By some estimates the black-market economy eclipsed the size of the regular economy. You could serve years in jail just for possessing a few American dollars.
One reprieve from the unrelenting day-to-day struggle was baseball. And not just any baseball, either. The Cuban national team had not lost a game since 1987 (they eventually won an astounding 152 in a row). When its stars weren’t on the road taking home gold at every international competition from the Pan Am Games to the Olympics, ordinary Cubans could watch them play anytime they wanted to, for free. No luxury boxes. No advertising (aside from government slogans). 50,000-seat stadiums with not a parking lot in sight. Amid the degenerating economic conditions, a kind of Golden Age of Baseball flowered in Cuba, and by 1996, pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez was one of its greatest ambassadors.
Though the date of his birth remains a point of contention, Orlando Hernandez Pedroso was truly a child of the revolution. According to the most reliable data (his passport, a divorce agreement, the back of his Cuban baseball card), Orlando was born on October 11, 1965, less than seven years after Fidel rose to power. He had never known life outside of communism but had grown up benefiting from the revolution’s achievements more than suffering from its ruthless excesses. A bright young man from a relatively poor home (where his rakish father was an infrequent visitor), Orlando was well-schooled by the free education system that had grown out of Cuba’s legendary literacy drive. And whereas his father Arnaldo had been prohibited from playing baseball in the vaunted Amateur League on the basis of race, Orlando’s skin color was never an impediment to his progress.
Inside and outside of Cuba, Fidel Castro had used sports as a symbol of the revolution’s achievements, as well as a proxy for a war against the United States. Elite Cuban athletes were not only expected to defeat American opponents on the field of play, they also had to help win the media battle against capitalism. As a boy, Orlando would have been exposed to boxer Teofilo Stevenson’s three–gold-medal Olympic domination (’72, ’76, and ’80), as well as his well-publicized rejections of riches to fight professionals like Muhammad Ali: “What is one million dollars compared to the love of my people?” Along with superstar teammates like Omar Linares and Germán Mesa, Duque came to occupy an equally strategic place in Cuban society—the athlete and the human being coming together to symbolize the success of the béisbol machine and the revolution itself. He even wore 26, a number ubiquitous on the island owing to its political significance. Duque himself would later explain he simply inherited it from his father (along with his nickname), but for many others it signalled loyalty to Movimento 26 de Julio, aka M-26-7, the organization Castro formed with Che Guevara that led the Cuban revolution.
For 10 seasons, 246 games and over 1,514 innings, El Duque pitched for Industriales of Havana, the Yankees of Cuban baseball, achieving a career winning percentage of .728, the highest in league history. During those years, professional agents and scouts from the U.S. salivated, shadowing the Cuban team’s movements at international competitions in the hopes of luring any of its immensely talented athletes to a lucrative life in America. Early on they zeroed in on Duque as the team’s great prize, the player with the brightest Major League Baseball future. But Duque was known around baseball circles off the island as a true believer, and a man unlikely to leave his wife and family behind to pursue fame and fortune.
The economic temptations were stark. At his peak, El Duque earned a salary of $8.75 a month pitching for Industriales, or $105 a year. Even with the extra privileges accorded to an elite athlete, during the “special period” he still needed side hustles to provide his family with basic necessities like meat, clothing and toilet paper. Yet in a country only 90 miles to the north, pitcher Kevin Brown could sign a contract for $105 million (as he did, in 1998, with the Los Angeles Dodgers). When asked by foreign journalists why he stayed on the island, Duque’s resolve never seemed to waver: “I know the prettiest word in the world is ‘money.’ But I believe that words like ‘loyalty’ and ‘patriotism’ are very beautiful as well.”
September 1995. Collect phone call to Monterrey in northern Mexico:
“Gordo, I’m ready,” a voice whispered to Joe Cubas. “I want out.”
“Well, when did you want to do this?” Cubas asked.
“A long time ago,” Livan Hernandez answered.
Time magazine would later write of Joe Cubas, “His nickname is El Gordo, the Fat Man, and he is both agent and metaphor.” It was this phone call with Hernandez that finally started the ball rolling. Cubas had begun with a dream that most wrote off as a delusion. There was nothing written in the rules of baseball that said he couldn’t help elite Cuban ballplayers to defect—now he was on the brink of landing a whale.
Livan Hernandez was nine years younger than his half-brother Orlando. Though they shared the same father, the two had never even met until Livan was 10. Where Orlando developed his genius on a baseball field over time, Livan was a natural. He grew up on Isla de la Juventud, the Isle of Youth, 50 miles off the southern coast of Cuba; Fidel Castro had been imprisoned there in 1953, shortly after the first, failed start of the revolution (for which the island earned the moniker “Tropical Siberia”). While Livan was a superior athlete to Orlando, he lacked his half-brother’s devotion and character. Livan chased women, drank and managed to excel at baseball without much overt concern for realizing his vast potential. Before the age of 20 he had made the national team’s roster. Cuban sportswriters lamented that El Duque would’ve loved to have had Livan’s fastball.
Joe Cubas first met Livan Hernandez in Venezuela in 1994. At the time, Livan was living with his mother and sister in a cramped fifth-floor walk-up. His mode of transportation to the baseball stadium was a rusty Chinese-made bicycle, and he was earning $6 a month. El Gordo assured him that millions of dollars awaited in the United States. As appealing as the offer sounded, Livan’s defection was only really set in motion after his television broke down.
Waiting is such an integral part of Cuban people’s lives, they say that if you stand still anywhere in Havana, a line is bound to form behind you. Livan’s wait was for a party apparatchik to fulfill the promise of fixing his television. It never happened, and Cubas stepped in where the Cuban government failed, offering Livan a new television when he caught up with the pitcher at a tournament in Japan. Afterwards, Livan informed his father, Arnaldo, that he was intent on signing with El Gordo. Later, the elder Hernandez would explain, “He just couldn’t take it anymore. He defected for a tube in a TV set that the idiot president of the party kept promising him.”
When he got the collect call from Livan, Cubas promptly hopped a plane from Miami and checked into a Holiday Inn—the closest hotel to Monterrey Stadium, where Team Cuba was training for the 1995 Baseball World Cup. Cubas made contact through an accomplice, a sexy Venezuelan blonde, handing her an autograph book with his own photo and phone number inside, and instructing her to give it to Livan. Cubas waited, within view, in a rental car and made sure Livan noticed him in the vehicle before driving off. Later that night, Livan made his second call to Cubas.
“The thing is,” Cubas would recall of the night Livan escaped, “you have to picture this industrial area. It was a street, very dark, and he starts walking. You can see him walking and he’s walking and he’s getting closer, and then he starts to run.” Livan would remember that pivotal moment another way, “Men aren’t supposed to cry, I know. I do.”
When Livan bolted from Team Cuba’s hotel, he was so overwhelmed at the thought of never seeing his family again that he almost ran into oncoming traffic. Cubas watched as a car screeched to a stop, just short of killing his prize, while Livan, sobbing uncontrollably, barely noticed.
Livan was now two hours from U.S. soil. Cubas’s plan, however, was to get him to the Dominican Republic, where he could establish the pitcher’s eligibility as a free agent and then sell his services to the highest bidder. Livan first flew to Mexico City in order to visit the Dominican embassy and get a visa. He was unsuccessful. Cubas pivoted, flying Livan over to Margarita Island in Venezuela to wait out the time until the Dominican visa was resolved.
In the meantime, Cubas lined up a deal with Blockbuster Video tycoon and Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga. The pitcher who’d been earning $6 a month in Cuba (ostensibly as an “electrician’s assistant”) now had a contract on the table worth in excess of $4.5 million over four years (with incentives pushing the salary to over $6 million).
Soon Joe Cubas was bragging that he would need a “Greyhound Bus” for the number of defectors he aimed to lure away from Team Cuba at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. But while Cubas had secured his place as the go-to guy for defecting Cuban ballplayers, he had a hard time retaining clients. El Gordo’s “venture humanitarianism” was expensive. While other baseball agents charged the standard 4 or 5 percent commission on clients’ salaries, Livan would later claim that Cubas not only attempted to charge 25 percent, citing the risks he had taken, but also tried to bill the pitcher for all the incidentals of tracking him down and getting him to America.
The fallout in Cuba from Livan Hernandez’s defection was immediate: El Duque became one of the most politically radioactive citizens in the country. He was left off the 1996 Cuban Olympic team that would win the gold medal in Atlanta. “I don’t know why they’re doing this to me,” Duque said at the time. “I’ve had every opportunity in the world to defect and I never did… I don’t know why I have to pay for my brother’s sins.”
At first, Livan was able to send money home to family in Cuba to ease the burden. But soon after, Livan and the Marlins were issued a letter by the U.S. Treasury Department informing them that the player was violating the U.S. trade embargo. Livan turned to a courier, Juan Ignacio, to bring money back to the island. Ignacio, despite the immense risks involved, operated in Havana with all the subtlety of Ed McMahon delivering a Publisher’s Clearing House check; he was soon arrested, tried and convicted. The judge wrote, “The accused unscrupulously took advantage of our condition as an underdeveloped and blockaded nation, attacking the dignity and the capacity of resistance and loyalty of several of our acclaimed athletes.” Ignacio was also discovered with Venezuelan work visas for El Duque and another Cuban baseball player. For his crimes, Ignacio received 15 years in prison.
On October 29, 1996, the Cuban state imposed further sanctions on Duque by banning him for life from any form of baseball. He was barred from even stepping onto any field in the country to practice. The following day, Granma, the official state newspaper, published a front-page statement branding Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez a mafioso, a criminal and a traitor.
When El Duque’s mother read the news, she told a friend, “one of my sons is dead. And now my other son is living dead.” (Maria’s first son and Orlando’s elder brother, Arnaldo, died of a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by an aneurysm.) Despite being known by name on every street corner in Cuba, El Duque was now being systematically erased from Cuban history by the state.
He saw his monthly stipend slashed from 271 Cuban pesos—$9—to 148. His marriage of 11 years crumbled. He moved in with a girlfriend, into a windowless shack built out of gray cinder blocks. He was allowed to work only at a psychiatric hospital in Havana, where he’d mostly sit under a tree watching mental patients milling about. He chain-smoked and distributed snacks.
Having labeled him a criminal and a traitor, the Cuban government didn’t expect for the Cuban public to see Orlando Hernandez as something else entirely: a martyr. At the same time that Castro’s government was going to extraordinary lengths to create a Cuban nightmare for one Hernandez, another Hernandez was being launched into orbit, powered by the American Dream. While El Duque led mental patients through calisthenics routines in a concrete courtyard, Livan was living the high life in his luxury Miami Beach apartment, buying a new car every few months.
At first, the drive-through windows of fast-food restaurants nearly ruined the younger Hernandez’s career prospects—he ballooned in weight and lost any semblance of his fastball. Yet over the summer of 1997, Livan turned his life around and emerged as one of baseball’s biggest stars. He won his first nine games after being called up to the big leagues. In the crucial fifth game of the National League Championship Series that fall, Livan would outduel Greg Maddux and set an LCS record by striking out 15. Livan went on to defeat the Cleveland Indians in Games One and Five of the World Series. After the Marlins won a thrilling Game Seven in 11 innings, he was awarded the Series MVP.
Through tears of grief and celebration, Duque watched on TV from his shack as his brother dropped to his knees, thumped his chest and screamed out, “I love you Miami!” El Duque decided he’d had enough. He asked for only one man: Joe Cubas.
The trouble was, by then, Cubas didn’t want the work. Livan had ditched Cubas for another agent (who also represented Jose Canseco) not long after the Marlins signing, and “El Gordo” was still furious. “Tell El Duque to go fuck himself,” Cubas responded. “He’ll fuck me the same way his brother did. Let the nigger drown.”
As El Duque’s life hit bottom, his great-uncle, Ocilio “Tio” Cruz, who lived in Miami, stepped up to the plate to bankroll and mastermind an escape. Tio had himself been a political prisoner back in Cuba—his entire youth had been wasted serving a 15-year sentence before he had fled to Miami during the massive Mariel boatlift of 1980. Tio was determined to save El Duque from a similar fate. Even before Livan’s escape, Tio had pleaded with El Duque to leave the island. “The biggest dream in my life is to watch you pitch in the major leagues,” Tio once told his grand-nephew. “You have the ability, son; you can make millions.” After Livan had successfully made the leap, Tio pushed harder. “They’re not going to let you out of Cuba.” Now, finally, Duque was listening. They would plot their escape by sea.
Taking care to avoid the intensified surveillance on the island, Duque located the name of a smuggler in Miami and instructed his uncle to track him down. After this arrangement fell through, Duque devised a new plan. He’d hire a boat inside Cuba to escape into international waters, then rendezvous with a second ship arriving from Florida, which would transport him safely to Miami. Tio began to work with someone nicknamed “El Argentino” to facilitate the operation. Argentino’s role was to be the liaison between Miami and Havana, delivering messages and money prior to the escape.
Just a few weeks later, in December of 1997, the Ministry of Interior summoned El Duque to their headquarters. He was notified that the government was aware of his efforts to defect and officially forbidden from entering the province of Santa Clara, home to the most convenient launch point off the island.
“You will never play baseball again,” a government agent promised. Duque was further advised he would be watched so closely that “the island will feel like it’s the size of a penny.”
“I’m going to play baseball again before I die,” El Duque replied. “Even if I have to play in Haiti.”
With El Duque’s life in Cuban society teetering between complete nonexistence and extreme claustrophobia, El Argentino arrived in Havana with $4,000 of Tio’s money.
Cubans have always been haunted by the sea. The distance between Key West and Havana is 106 miles, which might constitute one of the largest graveyards on Earth. The area is riddled with fatal dangers: the force of the Gulf Stream, incredibly volatile weather, and, of course, sharks. Estimates vary, but as many as 30 percent of those who have attempted to cross those waters have perished. In light of all this, the waves lapping against Cuba’s shore have long represented the bars of a prison cell as much as a gateway to freedom.
Finally, the perfect day El Duque had been waiting for arrived. After nearly 30 years of being banned by the state, Christmas had been reinstated, a goodwill gesture made by Fidel Castro in anticipation of the Pope’s visit. While El Comandante could find it in his heart to reinstate Santa Claus, he offered no pardon to the revolution’s most successful pitcher.
On Christmas evening, El Duque attended a wedding with his new girlfriend, Norita. Guests remember the couple behaving “serenely” before departing the party at 7pm. After nightfall, the pair joined four other would-be defectors (including two lesser-known baseball players). They all traveled down the National Highway to Caibarién, a drowsy fishing village five hours east of Havana. There, they met the boat’s captain Juan Carlos Romero and his wife Geidy (who were also leaving for good) and two shipmates, who planned to bring the boat back. Over the years Caibarién had become a mecca for rafters looking to take their lives into their own hands by crossing the straits. By dusk the streets were empty. The launch point was Conuco Cay, just outside town. Occasionally people were known to camp there; Duque and his companions, however, found it empty, nothing but palm trees and heavy grass running toward the beach. They were able to drive up to almost the edge of the shore, but to get on the boat, all of them had to wade into the water. When someone expressed second thoughts about the escape, Norita cut them off: “Better to drown than to turn back now.”
In a best-case scenario, the first leg of their journey would last 10 hours. Should anyone happen to notice them, they would claim to be on a routine fishing trip. When they spotted a Cuban Coast Guard cutter off in the distance, Duque’s boat pretended to look for fishing zones in the sea. After an hour of fake trolling, Juan Carlos, maneuvered the boat toward the Bahamas.
Just off Caibarién lies the Sabana Archipelago, a string of tiny islands that blocks the entrance to the open sea. Juan Carlos chose a narrow channel running between the islands, but because of a low tide, the boat struck bottom and became stuck. Only after the captain himself jumped into the water and got the hull loose was the boat able to safely navigate beyond the archipelago and past the critical 12-mile international limit. They headed north, outside of Cuban waters, into pristine weather at seven knots.
By this point, Duque had been hiding on the floor of the boiling cabin with all the other defectors for over four hours. They were horribly seasick. When Juan Carlos finally gave the all-clear, everyone leaned over the side and retched.
The plan was for El Argentino to meet El Duque’s boat at 5pm between Santaren and Nicholas Channels, not far from the uninhabited Bahamian island of Anguilla Cay. From there, Miami was only 70 miles away. One by one, the group of eight slid off the boat and waded toward the shores of Anguilla Cay. The shipmates needed to return to Cuba by nightfall to avoid suspicion. After everyone gathered on the beach had watched the fishing vessel slowly disappear, they looked over their provisions: cigarettes, two cans of Spam, ten pounds of sugar, and several gallons of drinking water. None of them could have guessed that not only was El Argentino’s boat nowhere near them—it hadn’t even left Miami.
ater on there would be dozens of versions of the legend of El Duque’s escape. The myths included all kinds of sensational details. Sharks circled him and gnawed at his raft. The boat took on water immediately after it left Cuba and nearly sunk after its 10-hour voyage. Biblical storms thundered and the ocean roared and heaved. Certain death was avoided only after Duque himself personally took a makeshift oar and rowed their way to freedom out of Cuba. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner would even claim that Duque had left the island in a “bathtub.” All of these tales would only enhance El Duque’s myth (and sell a lot of newspapers). In reality, the escape boat, a 30-foot craft with a diesel motor, had safely made the journey from Miami to Cuba on several occasions. It was only on Anguilla Cay where Duque’s struggle to escape Castro’s grip became a truly existential ordeal.
As nightfall approached, the stranded group on the beach had only one way of signaling the boat they were expecting to rescue them: a cheap 35-mm camera with a built-in flash. They squinted into the darkness toward every sound they heard and took turns shouting, “Over there! Over there!” The flash clicked, illuminating nothing but open sea, and everyone waited to shout at the next phantom noise.
This went on for hours, until just after midnight, when the clear, starlit sky clouded over and it began to rain. The camera flash erupted with increasing urgency and desperation. “We’re gonna need that camera,” Duque warned. “You’re gonna break it if you keep flashing so much.” But everyone assumed the boat had to be out there somewhere, so they kept shooting. Flash. Flash. Flash. The rain looked like it was being lit by a strobe light. The man holding that camera would later confess, “We were stranded on a fucking island. I just wanted somebody to see us.”
Flash. Flash. Flash.
Before Duque could warn the man yet again, the rain-slicked camera slipped free of his hand and dropped hard against the wet sand below.
“We were fucked,” another stranded companion would later recount. “It got all wet. There was sand all over it and it just broke. The camera was fucked. We were fucked.”
“You fucking shit-eater!” Duque screamed. “Now look what you did! Now they won’t see us!”
Everyone took turns trying to resuscitate the camera, but it was no use. There was nothing else available to signal anyone out into the night, nothing to hint at the presence of people in need of rescue. After the energy for screaming recriminations was spent, the frightened and exhausted group stared off into the darkness and, one by one, dozed off on the beach of Anguilla Cay.
In the morning Duque and the others saw how truly alone they were. For miles there was nothing but ocean. The sugar water and Spam were passed around the group. There was nothing left to do but wait or explore the shoreline. Soon enough they discovered a rafting graveyard: candles, boat engines, and wrecks. Later they found discarded tarpaulins to sit on, some dry wood along with a charcoal stove, and tents in case it rained. Duque used his cigarette lighter and some diesel fuel over driftwood to start their first fire. Others located some pots and pans, but there was nothing to cook. In the coming days, the only food they found to supplement their dwindling supplies were a few conches, which the men peeled from their shells and boiled in seawater. (The women rejected the idea.)
Nobody has ever discovered the truth of what happened to the boat Tio hired to rendezvous with Duque and the others. (Both El Argentino and Tio have always refused to elaborate on record.)
What is known is that back in Miami, Tio quickly turned to a Cuban-exile group known as Brothers to the Rescue, which sends small planes out over the Florida Straits to locate desperate rafters. Their planes in fact made several passes over Anguilla Cay, but the castaways were terrified, believing they were U.S. Coast Guard combing for rafters to send back to Cuba. The pilots returned to Miami unaware that Duque and the others had been hiding from them behind palmettos.
Not long afterwards, El Duque made a campfire on the beach and brought the group together to announce a plan. He proposed everyone adopt a revised version of how they had arrived on Anguilla Cay to protect the shipmates and everyone else back in Cuba who had helped them. Duque also suggested the baseball players in the group destroy their IDs in the fire so that, in the event of their rescue, their ages could be concealed and their leverage to join a Major League team maximized. Everyone agreed and Duque threw everything that identified him into the flames, then headed off to pace along the beach alone and stare out at the waves.
On December 28, 1997, their third day on the island, the stranded men were playing baseball on the beach, using planks for bats and chunks of old buoys for balls, when a helicopter flew over. The group’s first instinct was to hide again, but at this point the fear of dying on the island trumped the fear of being forced back to Cuba. The helicopter hovered a few hundred yards from the group as they raced over and waved frantically. The pilot waved back, then quickly turned around and flew off the way he had come. Drinking water was running precariously low. Panic was slowly beginning to take its toll on the group.
“The helicopter left and we waited,” one of the stranded members of the group recalled. “We expected to be picked up. We spent the whole day waiting. Night came, and nothing. Everyone was getting desperate. During the first hours of the morning we all went out to check. We looked around. Then, coming from the east, we saw a Coast Guard boat getting closer and closer.”
Because of the shallow reef circling the island, the Coast Guard cutter pulled up a couple hundred feet from the shores of Anguilla Cay. An inflatable raft with a small engine was deployed to collect and ferry everyone back into the boat. The castaways waded into the water to meet the raft, and after three trips everyone was aboard. From there the group was transferred to another boat, the Baranof, a 110-foot Coast Guard cutter from Miami. The Baranof was on a five-day patrol of the Florida Straits, looking for immigrants and drug smugglers. The seas were choppy and it began to rain as the Coast Guard officer brought everyone blankets, coffee, rice and beans. One of Duque’s companions spotted an American flag rippling in the wind at the back of the boat. “They’re taking us to the United States,” he announced.
Unbeknownst to Duque or the others, because Anguilla Cay was part of the Bahamas, they were on their way to Freeport and then on to Nassau. The Bahamas had a repatriation agreement with Cuba, so if the situation were to be handled by the letter of the law, everyone with Duque would be forced back home, and face the consequences of a failed escape. Massive press coverage ensued—reporters from CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, along with the entire Miami press corps—flew over to Nassau to cover the unfolding situation. Behind the glare of lights was someone else, too: Joe Cubas. El Gordo, it turned out, had proposed the idea of the press conference in the first place.
“How’s the fastball, Duque?” was the first question. “Would you like to play on the same team as your brother?” asked another reporter. Then the most obvious question of all: “So, how did you guys get here?” Journalists feverishly jotted down Duque’s answers, many of the quotes ending up in cover stories the following day.
After the press conference, Joe Cubas approached the refugees with $500 in his hand to grease their palms. “This is to help you guys eat,” he said. Cubas instructed the group that their case needed to be made public and that they must plead for political asylum. He reminded everyone that they were political refugees and that it was possible to shame the Bahamians into delaying anyone being sent back to Cuba, while plans could be set in motion to get them to the United States.
The press conference proved to be a huge success for Cubas. As he’d predicted, the Bahamas formally announced deportations were on hold until the cases could be evaluated. The same day, Florida’s anti-Castro hardliners mobilized their Washington representatives to press the State Department’s Cuba desk. The Clinton administration prepared a response. With pressure from the INS, the White House and the State Department, the U.S. government extended “humanitarian parole” to El Duque and two others in less than 24 hours. On January 2, 1998, El Duque signed an agreement making Joe Cubas his agent.
“If I pitch in the big leagues, I will be living out my greatest dream,” Duque would say of having the chance to play baseball in America. “It would be like being born again.”
arch 17, 1998 (St. Patrick’s Day)—a press conference to announce the greatest pitcher in modern Cuban history signing for $6.6 million over four years with the Yankees was held at Victor’s Café in Miami. The parking lot outside was crammed with news vans and television trucks whose endless power cables slithered past the six-foot tall replica of the Statue of Liberty in the heavily air-conditioned room.
After a delay, El Duque and his agent Joe Cubas walked into the room, with Duque’s great-uncle and girlfriend closely behind. Cubas and Duque approached the microphone and got an ovation before either could get a word out. Camera flashes blinded everyone on the podium.
A reporter asked Duque what it’s like trading one dictator (Fidel) for another (George Steinbrenner). Duque didn’t recognize the Yankees owner’s name and had to ask someone nearby to explain the question.
“There is no comparison,” Joe Cubas interjected. “Steinbrenner is a businessman. Fidel Castro is a traitor.”
Not long after, Cubas would giddily peddle the great story of Duque’s escape to major Hollywood studios. “We’re lining up Cuba Gooding Jr. as Orlando Hernandez and Antonio Banderas as Joe Cubas” he informed Sports Illustrated. “[Duque] won’t answer any questions about his trip… He’s saving it for the movie.”
Suddenly the side door of Victor’s Café opened and the room exploded into shouts and cheers. Livan Hernandez forced his way past reporters, negotiating the footing on the cables piled over the carpet, on his way to seeing his brother for the first time in two-and-a-half years. Duque’s mouth opened wide, but before he could say anything, Livan grabbed him close, taking his face into his hands while kissing his bald head. Livan smiled, “Hold on, don’t cry.” Duque could not hold on. He shook in his brother’s embrace, rubbing at his face as tears poured over his cheeks. “I can’t help it,” Duque blurted out to the room. Livan stared, frozen for a moment in disbelief that his brother was standing next to him. Duque was the last person Livan had seen in Cuba, and the first person to teach him the art of pitching.
“I’m one hundred percent happy,” Livan then shouted to the crowd. “They did an injustice to him in Cuba, an injustice they would’ve done to me if I’d stayed. So my first advice is… Don’t eat too much McDonald’s!”
The room laughed and pens scribbled furiously on notepads. For most in attendance, it was the perfect punchline for a snug-fitting narrative—brothers reunited, the American Dream triumphing over a Cuban nightmare. However, one reporter there, S.L. Price, would remember the moment differently.
“Mine is an unseemly standoff between head and heart, a logical mess. I applaud Duque’s escape, but I’d rather see him pitch in Havana…. I know what everyone knows: Cuba is the worst place on the globe to be an athlete today. But I’m sure I know something even stranger. It is also the best.”
“I remember changing planes in Miami after seeing [Duque],” Yankee scout Lin Garret later told Sports Illustrated, recalling the showcase Cubas would stage that February in Costa Rica. Representatives from nearly 20 Major League teams had flown over to get their first up-close look at Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez as a prospective big league pitcher. “A lot of scouts said they didn’t like him. They said he didn’t throw hard—he was eighty-eight to ninety-two miles per hour—they worried about his ability… They weren’t sure how old he was. But there was more to this guy…. No, this was a special type of person. The radar gun wasn’t going to tell you his story. That night I called up Mark Newman (New York’s vice president of player development) and said, ‘We’ve got to be in it. I don’t care if he’s twenty-eight or thirty-two or whatever.’”
When the New York Yankees signed El Duque, they imagined he would pitch his entire first year in Triple A. However, in early June, their ace David Cone got bit by his pet Jack Russell on his pitching hand. Hernandez got the call-up from Columbus and made his first start on June 3, 1998, barely five months after his Christmas Day escape.
El Duque was an immediate sensation, arriving in the Bronx fully formed in style and substance. He wore his navy blue socks unusually high, with his cap bent at the brim and tucked low over his eyes. His delivery combined a high Juan Marichal–like leg kick with a sharp tucking down of his head, so that his eyes were actually obscured by his front knee and broke contact with the batter and the plate mid-delivery. From this tightly wound coil, he rocked forward and unleashed a vast arsenal of angles, speeds and pitches: side-arm slurves, overhand changeups, three-quarter sliders—using misdirection and location to compensate for what he lacked in velocity. He fielded his position with supreme athleticism and unflappable calm, pouncing off the mound to turn slow rollers and tricky dribblers into routine outs. He allowed Tampa Bay only one run in seven innings and struck out seven to earn his first Major League victory.
During the postgame interview, Duque wiped tears from his eyes with his pitching hand while a translator spoke to the camera. He dedicated the game to his family still living in Cuba, his two daughters, Yahumara and Steffi, as well as his mother, Maria Julia, who still refused to change the calendar in her home from the day her son had left the island.
The Yankees were 60-20 by the Fourth of July and running away with the AL East. Whatever Duque’s age may have been, nobody questioned his dominance over right-handed hitters, who batted a miserable .144 against him. On August 13, Fidel Castro’s seventy-second birthday, Duque struck out 13 batters against the Texas Rangers. Later that week, he was featured in Sports Illustrated. “I always believed I would pitch again someday,” he told Tom Verducci. “But I didn’t think I would be in the big leagues this early. I dreamed this. But I’m not a fortune-teller. I also dreamed I would be president.” Verducci wrote that Duque was especially “jazzed” that his highlights were making ESPN, a channel he knew Fidel Castro frequently tuned in. “I hope he watches me and is pulling the hair out of his beard.”
The Yankees would go on to mount one of the greatest seasons in the history of baseball, compiling a record of 114-48. Duque’s regular season record was 12-4 with a 3.13 ERA, but his finest moment came in Game Four of the American League Championship Series, where he allowed only three hits and pitched seven shutout innings, helping the Yankees tie their series against the Cleveland Indians 2-2. Duque and the Yankees went on to sweep the World Series against the San Diego Padres, with Duque pitching seven masterful innings in Game Two, allowing only one run.
On the eve of the Yankees’ victory parade, Fidel Castro made a surprising gesture to his one-time protégé and former captive. Duque had written to New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor, asking if the church could intercede with the Cuban government to allow him to see his family. On Friday, October 23, with the Cuban government’s permission, Duque’s mother, ex-wife and two daughters arrived at Teterboro on George Steinbrenner’s private jet—just in time to join Duque and the team for the ticker-tape march up Broadway’s “Canyon of Heroes.”
Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez went on to win three more World Series rings: two with the New York Yankees (1999 and 2000) and his last, in 2005, with the Chicago White Sox. He made it back to the playoffs with the Mets after a strong 2006, but tore his calf muscle running windsprints before his scheduled Game One NLDS start. It was the beginning of a string of injuries that would plague him until the Rangers released him in July 2009. Hernandez finished his Major League career with a 90-65 regular-season record and spectacular post-season numbers: 9-3, 2.55 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 106 innings pitched.
Hernandez now devotes himself to El Duque Sports, an organization that works with children in Hialeah, Florida, to introduce new players to the game of baseball and help them develop basic fundamentals in order to succeed. His website explains that it is Duque’s “dream to give back to all of South Florida the same love and affection that he has received throughout the years.”
At the height of his fame, Joe Cubas demanded an advance on his autobiography equal to what Desert Storm General Norman Schwarzkopf got for his memoirs. He did not receive it. In 2002, Cubas was officially banned by the MLB from representing baseball players, and soon after his office was shut down and his home foreclosed.
Since his debut for the Florida Marlins back in 1996, Livan Hernandez has pitched for nine other teams, including notable stints with the San Francisco Giants, Washington Nationals and New York Mets. He evolved from the power pitcher of his youth to a pace-changing veteran, amassing a 178-177 record with a 4.44 ERA, along with 1976 strikeouts in 3,189 innings. He last pitched on September 29, 2012, for the Milwaukee Brewers, and as of press time, remains a free agent.