New York Yankee Legends: Orlando Hernandez, a leg kick not soon forgotten

orlando hernandez, yankees

The New York Yankees have been blessed with some of the greatest pitchers and players MLB has ever seen. One of those players that has one of the more interesting stories is Orlando Hernandez. Most Yankee fans fondly remember him as just “El Duque.”

This is the story of a young Cuban boy who loved baseball, who the Cuban Government would eventually ban from playing the game he loved. He would take the dangerous route and defect from his homeland, eventually making it to the Bahamas and then to Costa Rica, and finally to the pitching mound of the New York Yankees.

Orlando Hernandez Pedroso was born on October 11, 1965, on the communist island of Cuba. In Cuba, baseball is almost a religion, and most young boys would want to grow up and play for the National team. The Duke, in Spanish El Duque, was no different. He would play ball anywhere where he could find a game. At the age of 27, he would finally get onto the Industriales of Havana. He would pitch well and help the team to the 1992 and 1996 National Championships.

During his time in Cuba, he was 126–47 with 3.05 ERA over his ten-year career in the National Series.

After Cuba got wind of possible ties to an American agent, the Cuban Government left him off the Olympic roster. Orlando was detained and questioned about his possible American ties. Afterward, he would be banned from playing baseball. On Christmas Day 1997, he would defect from Cubs on a leaky raft or boat, according to which you choose to believe. He would defect from the small city of Caibarien. As and his companions were approaching the Florida Straits, they were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and be brought to Freeport in the Bahamas, where the group was confined in a facility for illegal immigrants.

The plan was to return the group to Cuba. Different groups lobbied that if returned, they would be subject to severe punishment that would cause them to be allowed into the United States. After a few months in Costa Rica, the New York Yankees would arrange a Visa, and Orlando Hernandez would become a Yankee. Orlando would refuse the deal and instead seek asylum in Costa Rica. As a non-U.S. resident, he was able to negotiate as a free agent.,

In the spring of 1998, he would start his four-year $6.6 million contract. The Yankees would be treated to a dynamic pitcher with an incredible story. They would, for the first time, see a man on the mound that had a delivery that included a leg kick that would cause his left leg to pull all the way up to his shoulder. In his first year, he would be 12-4 with a 3.13 ERA and be fully embraced by the Yankee fans, as he helped them regain the World Championship. In 1999 El Duque would have his best year in the major leagues. He would go 17-9 with 157 strikeouts in 214 innings pitched.

In a famous incident in Yankee history, during a game in June, he would field a ball that would get stuck in his glove. the quick thinking El Duque threw the entire glove, with the ball in it, to first for the out. In the 1999 World Series, Hernandez would be the starting pitcher in game 1 at Turner Field, he would pitch eight innings allowing only 1 run in the Yankees 4-1 win. The Yankees would go on to sweep the series over the Atlanta Braves.

The 2000 season for the Yankees would be disappointing as they would win only 87 games compared to the 114 wins the year before. Hitting was down, and pitching was not as good. El Duque would go 12-13 while being a workhorse. In the ALDS, he would win his game 4-2. In the ALCS, he would win game 3 7-1. He would also win the deciding game six, sending the Yankees to the Subway Worlds Series against the Mets. He would lose his only start in the Series.

Over his first three postseasons from 1998–2000, Hernández performed Exceptionally well, going 8-1 with a 2.23 ERA.
In 2001 and 2002, he would have a record of 12-12 before being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. He would never pitch a game with the Jays, as he had to have surgery for a rotator cuff injury. The Jays would release him. At the start of the 2004 season, he would again be a Yankee signing a one-year contract.

In 2004 he would be back in form and have an 8-2 season while pitching 15 games in the second part of the season due to still rehabbing from his surgery. After the season, he would sign with the Chicago White Sox and go 9-9 on the season. He would then be traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks. There he would go 2-4 in the first two months but would then be traded to the New York Mets, where he would go 18-12 over two years.

In 2008 he would have two surgeries that would not allow him to pitch. With no major league offers, he would play in the minor league system of the Texas Rangers. His velocity and command would begin to fall off, and he would not be called up to pitch with the big team. Holding out again for a place in the major league, he would again sign a minor league deal in July of 2010. During the season, the manager informed him he would not be called up, and Hernandez quit the team.

He would announce his official retirement in August of 2011. A nine-year pitching career is considerably short. However, he can look back at his glory years with the Yankees. After retirement, he would take up residency in Miami, where the now 56-year-old still lives with his common-law wife, dancer Noris Bosch. He is presently a Spanish-speaking sportscaster. The last time fans saw him in pinstripes was during the 2013 and 2014 Old Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium.

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