How Cuba Benched a Star Pitcher

'The Duke'

Ever since that cool March night when I met Orlando Hernandez in a Havana stadium dugout, I've harbored a nagging doubt.

Last week I got the answer to that sneaking suspicion - I think.

Orlando Hernandez is a Cuban baseball star who jumped into a small sailboat in the waning days of 1997 with seven other Cubans, including his wife. On Dec. 28 they were picked up in Bahamian territorial waters, and by the last day of the year a smiling Hernandez - wearing a major league jersey and cap - was giving a press conference in Nassau. The United States had granted asylum to him, his wife, and another baseball player who made the risky escape.

Country of residency, immigration status, and contract negotiations are still to be worked out. But the pitcher considered perhaps the best ballplayer from an island full of baseball talent is almost certain to have a lucrative future in major league baseball.

Known as El Duque, or "The Duke" at home, Hernandez is the half-brother of Livan Hernandez, the Florida Marlins pitcher and 1997 World Series MVP who defected in 1995.

As a result of that defection and a government conclusion the next year that Orlando had abetted his brother when he skipped a game in Mexico to head for the United States, El Duque was banned from playing Cuban baseball for life. Yes, for life.

But when I met Hernandez in March 1996 while reporting for the Monitor, the lanky, black Cuban was still playing Cuban national baseball - with no sights set on anything else. At least on the surface.

It was the verbal commitment to Cuban ball and a professed lack of envy of a younger brother, who already then was hitting pay dirt in the US, that left me wondering one of the perennial questions a journalist asks himself: Was this guy handing me a line?

What El Duque told me, as an unusually cool wind blew through Havana's Latinoamericano Stadium and caused him to pull a team jacket around his shoulders, was this: "Our most important commitment is to the Cuban people who love baseball, and [Cuban President and legendary baseball enthusiast Fidel Castro] is part of that commitment. We [players] represent our flag.... [Livan] took his own path and he's my blood, how could I wish him anything but the best of luck? Sure, I'd like to play major league baseball someday, but when it's authorized from here. If you do it any other way, you can't return to Cuba."

When I heard about Hernandez braving the shark-infested Caribbean waters to flee Cuba, I dug out the old notebook from our interview. In the margin opposite his words, I'd scrawled, "Really?"

Apparently the Cuban government had some doubts, too. Hernandez, who had helped the Cuban baseball team take the gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, was not allowed to help Cuba defend its title at the Atlanta summer Games in 1996. Ostensibly the reason was El Duque's sore arm. But any bat-and-ball-carrying boy in Havana could tell you it was because the government feared another high-profile defection.

So when I first learned of El Duque's flight, my reaction was a smug lack of surprise.

But maybe in March 1996, Hernandez meant what he said. Maybe he was talking as much to convince himself as he was to enlighten an American reporter.

Maybe it was his government's harsh treatment that subsequently led him to contradict his words. After being banned from the game, Hernandez held down a job as a therapist earning less than $10 a month - a normal Cuban wage. On Sundays he could usually be seen playing a game with friends in some Havana park, or maybe on a trash-strewn lot. To Havanans, he stood out like "No Future" graffiti.

Now Hernandez is busy sorting out his future. He has decided not take up legal residency in the US, in deference to a quirk in major league rules that allows him to negotiate as a free agent - the most lucrative path - only if he establishes residency outside the US.

Hernandez is also demanding that asylum be granted to all eight Cubans who sailed away from Havana Dec. 26. Speaking late last week through an American sports agent, he said he feared his friends faced prison or other mistreatment if returned to Cuba. It's a concern he knows something about.

Still, I'm left wondering: As the cameras flash, immigration officials negotiate, and major league teams salivate, how much is El Duque thinking about the Cuba he "can't return to"?

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