Yankees Magazine: The Fighter

After risking it all to flee his native Cuba, the fearless Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez pitched his way into Yankees lore

June 21st, 2018
New York Yankees

In the span of less than a year, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez defected from Cuba, signed a contract with the Yankees, climbed the organizational ladder from Single-A to the big leagues and became a dominant and clutch performer for one of the greatest teams in Major League history.
Oh, yeah, he also won 12 regular season contests for the vaunted 1998 Yankees, then added crucial, dramatic victories during the postseason.
After getting called up for a spot start on June 3, 1998, Hernandez remained in the Bronx and in the rotation for the rest of the season. He dazzled in his debut, went the distance in his second start and never looked back.

In Game 4 of the 1998 American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians, Hernandez helped the Yankees even things up at two games apiece with a scoreless seven-inning performance on the road. About a week later, he gave the team another boost, this time giving up one run over seven innings in Game 2 of the World Series against the San Diego Padres.
Following the Yankees' 125-50 championship season in 1998, Hernandez won two more rings in pinstripes and also helped the Chicago White Sox secure the 2005 World Series title. His nine-year Major League playing career ended in 2007 with 90 wins.
Earlier this year, Hernandez, assisted by an interpreter, sat down with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III in Miami, Florida.
When you were growing up in Cuba, how much did you know about the history of the Yankees, and what were your thoughts about the team?
I didn't have the opportunity when I was a child to learn about the Yankees, but when I got a little older, I was given a Yankees shirt as a gift. That's when I began to love the Yankees. I would wear that blue Yankees T-shirt underneath my jersey during some of the games I pitched for the Cuban national team. From that point on, I loved the Yankees, and I tried to learn as much about their history as I could.
How much did that love ultimately play into your decision to sign with the Yankees when you defected from Cuba?
That was definitely a factor. When I thought back on how much I had respected the organization, I knew that if I had the chance to pitch for the Yankees, it would be an incredible experience. When the opportunity actually presented itself, I didn't want to pass it up.
What were the most significant challenges for you in getting acclimated to life in the big leagues?
The language barrier was the most challenging thing for me. But I was confident that I could pitch well from the first day I put on a Yankees uniform. I felt like regardless of where you are in the world, baseball is baseball, and I've always been comfortable on the mound. If you understand the game, you can play it anywhere.
What were your first impressions of the Yankees organization when you arrived in Tampa, Florida, for your first Spring Training in 1998?
I will never forget the first time I walked into the clubhouse. Just seeing the names of all of the superstars at that time, who I had heard of and read about, was very impressive. Another moment that stands out is when Bernie Williams came up to me and began speaking with me in Spanish. Without that much access to coverage of sports outside of Cuba, I didn't know that he was Hispanic -- when you think about the name Bernie Williams, it doesn't sound Latino. But it was a nice surprise to know that I could communicate with him, especially considering what a great teammate he was.
What were the two months you spent in the Minors following Spring Training like for you?
It was a really important time for me. Being in the Minors for those two months helped me adapt to life in the United States. I was able to figure out what I needed to do on the days in between starts and on the days I was pitching. (Yankees pitching coordinator) Billy Connors taught me what I needed to do to be successful when I got to New York. He taught me how to throw the change-up. He was not only a great advisor to me, but he treated me like I was his son.
What emotions were you feeling when you were standing on the mound at Yankee Stadium prior to your first big league start?
I was really emotional during the national anthem, and I wanted to just take it all in and enjoy the atmosphere in the Stadium. But I was especially touched by the people in the seats who were waving Cuban flags. I had to tell myself at that point, "Hey kid, you always wanted to make it to the big leagues and to pitch for the Yankees. Now you're here, and you've got to do what you've got to do. This is your chance."
You settled in quickly that night, striking out seven batters while only giving up one run in seven innings of work. How determined were you to win that game and prove that you could get Major League hitters out in your first start?
I feel like I've always been a warrior. I took that attitude to the mound just like I did in Cuba. My goal when I came to the United States was to prove to everyone that I could get it done in the Majors, so I was very determined that night. But I also wanted to enjoy that game and the time on the mound that night because it meant so much to me to be there. I have always been a fighter. I have always been a competitor. Whenever I had a challenge in front of me, I came out swinging, and that was certainly my mindset that night. That's who I've always been and will always be.

What took place in the clubhouse after your first start?
After that game, I was told that I was going back to Triple-A. When Billy Connors saw me packing up, he asked me where I was going. He told me to wait and that I wasn't going anywhere. He called George Steinbrenner and asked him to keep me in New York. The Boss acquiesced, and that's how I got a second start.
How much did you enjoy being in the same rotation as David Cone, David Wells and Andy Pettitte, all of whom where among the best starters in the game?
I loved watching those guys pitch. They were all so different from each other, so every day I wasn't on the mound was a great learning experience. Those guys weren't power pitchers, but they could all locate their pitches. When I look back on being part of that rotation and when I think about all that we accomplished together, I realize that it was an honor and a privilege.
After making it look easy in the regular season and in the American League Division Series, you and your teammates found yourselves trailing the Cleveland Indians in the ALCS, 2 games to 1. What were your thoughts on taking the ball for the crucial Game 4 on the road?
I was grateful for the opportunity, and I wasn't going to mess it up. After we lost Game 3, Joe Torre, the coaches and George Steinbrenner had a meeting. Not everyone thought that I should start that game. But I was told that (coaches) Willie Randolph and Jose Cardenal were outspoken about how much they wanted me to pitch. They said that with what I had been through in defecting from Cuba, I had dealt with real pressure that was much greater than anything you feel on the mound. They felt that if I could deal with that level of pressure, I would have no problem with the pressure of winning that game.
From a purely baseball perspective, what, if anything, from your days in Cuba prepared you for that game?
I had pitched in a lot of big games in international tournaments with the Cuban national team, so it wasn't the first time my team was really counting on me. But I was always able to keep baseball in perspective. At the end of the night, it's still a game, and there will always be more games for both teams. Regardless of whether it was the regular season or the postseason, I took the mound with the same mindset. I remember being in a restaurant with my agent earlier that day when Joe Torre walked in with his family and sat near us. We were talking pretty loud and laughing a lot, like we always did. That concerned Joe. He came over and asked us if everything was OK, and I told him that it was. Then he said, "Well, do you know how important tonight's game is?" And, I said, "Of course I do, but the game is at 7 o'clock and it's only noon. I'll worry about the game at 7 o'clock." Joe started laughing, so I think he liked my response. He also liked that I went out there and gave him seven shutout innings in that victory.
Were you able to grasp how incredible it was that in less than a year, you went from being banned from baseball in Cuba to taking the ball in Game 2 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium?
Not at that time. Obviously, the confidence Joe Torre had in me had grown after the game in Cleveland, and I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity I got to pitch in big games. So, although it was an honor to pitch in the World Series, I was more excited simply because it now seemed like an easy decision to put me out there. Looking back, I'm proud and grateful to be able to say that I pitched in the World Series that year.
What was the moment like when you found out that your family would be allowed to join you in the United States?
In the middle of the last World Series game in San Diego, I was told to meet my agent right outside of our clubhouse. When I got there, he told me that Fidel Castro had approved my family to leave Cuba. Cardinal John O'Connor out of New York sent a handwritten petition to Castro, which he accepted. I was not expecting that news, and I wasn't expecting to see my family for a long time. It was the happiest moment in my life. I will always be grateful to Cardinal O'Connor for what he did, and to George Steinbrenner, who sent a plane to Cuba to pick up my family within 24 hours of them being allowed to leave.
How important was winning that World Series to you?
To be honest, I had won all of the major championships in Cuba and several international competitions and a gold medal in the (1992) Barcelona Olympics. So at the time, I didn't really understand how important winning the World Series was for the organization, for the city and for all of the Yankees fans throughout the world. At that time, although I was thrilled that we had won the World Series, I didn't realize how truly important it was until later. When I was done celebrating with my teammates, I did have a few quiet minutes alone, and I was able to reflect on all that had happened over the previous 10 months, and that was a very emotional time for me.
How would you describe the experience of riding up the Canyon of Heroes in the 1998 World Series parade with your family?
Being able to win a World Series and to then reunite with my family on the morning of the parade was amazing -- the greatest day of my life. The feelings I had when I was on that float are indescribable. I don't think my kids had ever seen as many people as they saw that day. It was all very exciting for them and for me.
Looking back, what does it mean to have been on a historically great Yankees team in 1998?
Being around so many great teammates that season is something I will never forget. I was blessed to have had the opportunity to sign with the Yankees because being a part of the Yankees' organization is one of the greatest things I have had in my life. I loved every team I played for in the Majors, but what set the Yankees apart was that I was a fan of that team and then got to play for the organization.
This interview is part of a season-long series of Q&A's with the 1998 Yankees and has been edited for clarity and length.