HE IS so calm. It's cold and drizzling, and the expected fiesta
of Cuban solidarity at Joe Robbie Stadium on March 10 has faded
with the sun; what was meant to be an electric occasion feels
like death in the afternoon. But the Florida Marlins' exhibition
opener begins, and Livan Hernandez, recently of Havana and the
Cuban national team, doesn't feel any of that. He lifts his left
leg easily, plants it with delicate grace and punishes the
Toronto Blue Jays. Fastball, slider, changeup, curve. Bats swing
and miss. Three rainy innings pass, and no one can touch him.
"He's pretty gutsy," says Toronto first baseman John Olerud. "He
comes at you with everything."
"He definitely can pitch in the big leagues," adds Blue Jays
catcher Charlie O'Brien.
Hernandez comes to the plate in the bottom of the third. He has
batted in the U.S. only once before. First pitch: He drills a
double down the leftfield line, and what has been a soggy clinic
ignites into something more. The 16,955 fans stand, bellowing
for the first time at this 21-year-old from whom the Marlins
expect so much, and it is beginning to sink in, this rarest of
rare things: a hype job come true.
He stands on the mound. It is the fourth inning, and an error
has allowed Toronto's Alex Gonzalez to reach first base. Now
here is Joe Carter, good enough to win a World Series with his
bat once. Hernandez throws three pitches, including a 96-mph
fastball, and Carter is down 0 and 2. Hernandez whirls and fires
to first, picking off Gonzalez. Then he strikes out Carter,
swinging, with a nasty slider. Now here is Olerud, good enough
to have chased .400 once. Hernandez freezes him with a
full-count slider, and Olerud is gone.
Hernandez has been so dazzling that any plan the Marlins had to
break him in slowly has all but crumbled. He has his own plan.
"I'm here to get a spot in the rotation," the righthander says.
Before a shaky six-run outing against the Cleveland Indians last
Saturday, he had given up just one hit, struck out five and
walked none in seven innings against major leaguers.
"He's making the decision [to start him in the minors] tougher
and tougher," says Florida manager Rene Lachemann. "He can throw
all four pitches for strikes. He showed us he can pick off a
man, he showed us control. There's not a whole lot else."
There is, though, more to Hernandez's progress than mere
pitching. When he bolted the Cuban national team last September,
during a training session in Monterrey, Mexico, Hernandez sent
the strange relationship between Major League Baseball and Cuban
players hurtling in a new direction. Fresh off a salary of $5 a
month, the kid considered the spearhead of a new generation of
Cuban greats, the latest hero from one of the island's premier
baseball families, sparked an unprecedented bidding war among
big league clubs before signing a four-year, $4.5 million
contract with the Marlins that includes an additional $1.5
million in incentives and a $2.5 million signing bonus. Even
more crucial to both his old and new leagues: Hernandez's route
to the majors--engineered for Livan and three other defectors by
guerrilla agent Joe Cubas of Miami--has made it easier than ever
for a Cuban player to cash in on his talent.
Hernandez doesn't like speaking about his defection. He refuses
to talk politics; he has good and delicate reasons. His mother,
Miriam Carreras, remains in Cuba, and Livan wants to bring her
north someday. And his half-brother, 27-year-old Orlando, is a
pitcher for the mighty national team, which their father,
Arnaldo, also played for. When baseball people discuss Livan,
they dwell on how composed he is, how he pitches like a man much
older. That's because, especially over the last two years,
Orlando never took his eyes off him. "Whatever I came here with,
my brother taught me--mechanics, location, how to approach the
game, how to use the wrist," Livan says. "My brother taught me
everything I know."
Orlando Hernandez, nicknamed El Duque (the Duke), doesn't look
much like the wide-bodied Livan. He is rangier, with a high kick
swiped from a Dwight Gooden video. "There are guys in Cuba who
are more fluid than he is, but the Duke always gets the job
done," says Omar Minaya, a director of scouting for the Texas
Rangers. "He's one of the best competitors I've known."
In Cuba he's one of the best, period. The ace of Havana's
Industriales, who recently won the Cuban National Series,
Orlando for eight years has been a member of the world-beating
national team, which is favored to win yet another gold medal at
this summer's Olympics. Children across the island imitate him,
prodigies who kick high and jerk the glove low behind the leg
and call themselves El Duque. His 129-46 lifetime record gives
him the highest winning percentage (.737) in the history of the
Cuban League. "He's a great pitcher," says Al Avila, the
Marlins' director of Latin American operations. "I could see him
pitching in the major leagues."
So could El Duque himself. But he has commitments his single
half-brother doesn't have--a wife, two children--that make
leaving Cuba tortuous. People say to him all the time, "Man,
Livan's a millionaire; you could be rich too." "I know my
talent," Orlando says, "but I won't desert to see it come to
In Cuba, Livan had no car and lived in a room in his mother's
apartment. In the U.S. he has bought only clothes and shoes and
has taken a room in the team hotel, but he has changed anyway.
In his first appearance in a Marlins uniform, he stood on a
mound in Melbourne, Fla., with his hat over his heart, listening
to a new national anthem. "I didn't feel strange at all," he
He will. No matter how serene Hernandez seems, his life has
become a surreal clash between then and now. Six months ago he
lugged his overused bicycle up five flights of stairs. Today he
poses beside a gleaming white limousine the size of a small
swimming pool, as some high-rolling Miami pals in Marlins shirts
snap picture after picture while their bodyguards look on. They
laugh a lot. Livan grins, bewildered. Then he gets in the car.
Hernandez was just 20 when he defected. "It was a very difficult
decision," he says. "You leave everything behind." He was hoping
to marry one girl in Cuba when he left, and then he got engaged
to another in the Dominican Republic after defecting. Now that
wedding is off. "He was our mascot, the little guy," El Duque
says sitting in his home in Havana. "What he likes is blonde
girls and lollipops."
Yet Livan was mature enough to understand the step he was taking
and savvy enough to depend on Cubas, a 35-year-old agent who had
made a name by spiriting another Cuban pitcher, Osvaldo
Fernandez, on an all-night drive last July from a tournament in
Millington, Tenn., to Miami. So when a woman approached
Hernandez on the field in Monterrey last Sept. 25, he wasn't
surprised to open her autograph book and find a picture of Cubas
with a phone number scribbled below. "Call him," she said.
Hernandez began to shake and sweat. At 11 p.m. that night he
phoned Cubas. At 1 a.m. Cubas parked behind a restaurant across
the street from the dorm where the Cuban team was staying. He
says he saw Hernandez emerge with his bags, "sobbing and very
nervous." So nervous, he was in the middle of the road before he
saw a car bearing down on him. He jumped back, the car swerved
off, and he and Cubas were left alone in the night. "Right at
that moment, I felt I was free," Hernandez says. "It was the
beginning of freedom."
Several hours later El Duque woke to go to the toilet. He and
Livan shared bags, gloves and clothes on the road, and on this
trip they shared a room with three other players. "Since he's my
brother, I looked at his bed," Orlando says. "I thought, He's in
the bathroom. Then I thought, He's young, probably with some
girl. But I checked for his bags, and they were gone." He grins.
"At least he left me my spikes and gloves. He took everything
Orlando wasn't prepared for how empty he would feel. "Every day
I was turning the corner again, looking for him," El Duque says.
"Every day I'm saying to myself, And I'm here with the team? So
much thinking. It exhausted me."
It didn't ease the sleep of major league executives, either.
Previous Cuban defectors had been assigned to a major league
organization either through the annual June amateur draft or a
special lottery. But, as he had done with Fernandez, who now
pitches for the San Francisco Giants, Cubas exploited a gaping
loophole: The above procedure applies only if a player receives
residence status in Canada, Puerto Rico or the U.S. So Cubas
took Hernandez to the Dominican Republic to establish residency
and showcase his game in the winter league--risky because
baseball could have fought to keep the status quo. "We
encountered a lot of resistance," Cubas says. "I didn't speak to
any club that thought this would go through." But on Dec. 1 the
commissioner's office stated that there was nothing to stop
Cubas from shopping those players as free agents. "Give him
credit," Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski says. "He was
trying to beat the system and was forced to use a lot of
ingenuity--and he did it." Then again, Dombrowski can be
magnanimous: The Marlins got Hernandez.
Baseball has rarely seen anything like the seven-city
Hernandez-Fernandez negotiation tour in December or the frantic
bargaining at the Hotel Plaza Naco in Santo Domingo in January.
The New York Yankees offered Hernandez $500,000 more than
Florida did, and when Hernandez chose Miami because of its Cuban
flavor, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner lit into one of his
negotiators with a profanity-laced tirade. The Blue Jays blew up
at Cubas after finding they had lost out on both players, and
Cubas vowed never to deal with Toronto owner Paul Beeston again.
To the Marlins, Hernandez's talent and heritage made him worth
almost any effort to land him. Florida suffered a massive
attendance drop in 1995, from 3,064,847 in '93 to 1,700,466 last
year, and in its four years of existence it has yet to win a
devoted following among South Florida's hundreds of thousands of
Cuban fans. "We needed to sign him," Dombrowski says. "We get to
the 1998 All-Star Game, and he's pitching and he's not a Florida
Marlin? And we could've signed him? I didn't want to answer
On Dec. 7, El Duque talked to Livan for the first time since he
defected. They spoke by phone of baseball and family and things,
and as the time flew too quickly, El Duque sensed something else
happening. Again and again Livan told him to expect a package.
"I'm going to help you," he kept promising, and in those words
Orlando felt a fundamental shift in his relationship with his
brother. "Now he is the big guy, and I'm happy," El Duque says.
"He sent me two pairs of training shoes so my feet, my [sore]
toes, don't bother me." He laughs. "They're the best pair of
training shoes I ever got in my life."
El Duque gets up, slides a cassette into his tape deck. He
pushes Play, and the room is filled with the sounds of a fuzzy
radio broadcast, crackling in and out, of Livan's first
interview after his defection. Livan is saying that he needs a
new challenge. Orlando nods. "He's ready," Orlando says. "He is
ready to pitch in the major leagues." The tape goes blank and
Livan's voice is gone, replaced by silence. El Duque looks up,
eyes shining. "It was a short interview," he says.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES The Marlins need Hernandez as much to attract Cuban-American baseball fans as to win games. [Livan Hernandez pitching]
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Livan says half-brother El Duque (center), a hero in Cuba, taught him all he knows about pitching. [Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez surrounded by children]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Hernandez, who is tightfisted with his newfound millions, lets his friends order up the limousine. [Livan Hernandez standing in front of limousine]