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.”