Less than a year after escaping the political oppression of Castro’s Cuba, where he had already forged a career as the ace of the Cuban national team, Orlando Hernandez helped the Yankees complete the most dominant season in AL history and emerged as the club’s most reliable money starter. Known as “El Duque” to all but P.A. announcers, Hernandez baffled hitters both with a contorted windup that brought his knee to chin level and with an assortment of fastballs, sliders and circus curveballs.
Despite a 129-47 record in international play, Hernandez was banned from the Cuban team in October 1996 for allegedly planning to defect. A year later he watched his younger half-brother Livan Hernandez, who had defected in 1995, claim World Series MVP honors for the Florida Marlins. The two events fueled his decision in December 1997 to leave his two daughters and former wife in Cuba and to seek the greener pastures of the United States.
The day after Christmas, Hernandez and seven others boarded a small boat and embarked on a hazardous journey, landing the next day on the deserted Caribbean island of Anguilla Cay. After getting picked up by the US Coast Guard on December 29th, Hernandez elected to establish residence in Costa Rica rather than accept a visa to enter the US. The decision allowed him to become a free agent instead of being subject to the baseball draft, and on March 7th he signed a four-year deal with the Yankees.
Having pitched in nothing more competitive than the occasional sandlot game since July 1996, Hernandez began the season in the minor leagues, making his professional debut for Single-A Tampa on April 16th. After winning six games in seven starts for Triple-A Columbus, he was called up to replace an injured David Cone in the Yankees starting rotation. New York had already run away from the rest of the league when Hernandez won his big-league debut on June 3rd vs. Tampa Bay, allowing one run over seven innings. He finished the year 12-4 with a 3.13 ERA in 21 starts, highlighted by a 13-strikeout performance against Texas on August 13th and a complete-game 3-0 shutout of the Red Sox and eventual AL Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez on September 14th. His collection of looping and darting breaking balls were poison to right-handed batters, who batted an anemic .162 vs. him.
But like his brother Livan, Hernandez would make his most vital contribution on the post-season stage. After racking up an AL record 114 regular-season wins and neutering Texas’ powerful offense during a three-game ALDS sweep, the Yankees lost two of the first three games to Cleveland in the League Championship Series. Facing the prospect of trailing three-games-to-one with another game scheduled in Cleveland, the club turned to Hernandez to stem the tide in Game Four. In his first post-season start, “El Duque” allowed just three hits in seven shutout innings as New York evened the series. The Yankees wouldn’t drop another game the rest of the post-season, and Hernandez turned in another masterful performance in Game Two of the World Series, holding the San Diego Padres to one run in seven innings.
The two wins marked the start of a stunning post-season run for Hernandez. Following up his 17-win regular season in 1999, he won three games in four post-season starts and was named MVP of the Bronx Bombers’ five-game ALCS battering of the Red Sox. In Game One of the World Series he set the tone for New York’s second straight Fall Classic sweep, giving up just one hit over seven innings while fanning 10 Atlanta Braves.
Hernandez began the 2000 season as the ace of the Yankees staff, and became the first foreign-born pitcher to start a season opener for the club. Though he struggled during the season (12-13 with a 4.51 ERA in 29 starts), his magic touch returned in the playoffs. After winning his lone start in the ALDS vs. Oakland and both of his starts in the ALCS vs. Seattle, Hernandez had become the first pitcher in baseball history to win his first eight post-season decisions. His run ended in Game Three of the World Series vs. the Mets, a loss which proved to be the only defeat the Yankees would suffer during their string of three consecutive championships.
In 2001, Hernandez faltered early in the season while trying to pitch through pain on his left big toe. He eventually underwent corrective surgery on the toe and a subsequent minor-league rehab stint before rejoining the club in August. He didn’t pick up a win until his 12th start of the year, when he defeated the Red Sox 2-1 on September 1st at Fenway Park.
Mystery has surrounded Hernandez since he joined the Yankees, from the exact details of his escape from Cuba to his seemingly mutable facility with the English language. The most persistent mystery though, remains his actual age. Since leaving Cuba, Hernandez has maintained that he was born on October 11, 1969, which would have made him 31 at the start of the 2001 season. Court records in Havana, however, indicate otherwise. According to documents relating to his divorce from his ex-wife Norma, Hernandez was born in 1965, meaning he might be as much as four years older than he told the Yankees.