The Story Behind Orlando El Duque Hernandez

February 19, 2013 – In addition to spending time with Jorge Posada during my recent trip to Miami, I also got to know former Yankees pitcher Orlando El Duque Hernandez.

I first met the El Duque at Bucky Dent’s annual golf outing in Lake Worth, Florida, and I spent an afternoon with the Cuban born pitcher a few days later in Miami.

At the golf tournament, El Duque played in a foursome, which included my wife, Tiana, and two of my colleagues. Although I don’t play golf, I still spent a few hours on the course with the group, and I enjoyed getting to know El Duque in advance of the interview – which had been set up a few weeks prior to my trip.

I was quickly reminded of what I learned about El Duque when I was around him for a brief time in 2004 (he returned to the Yankees that season after a glorious run in pinstripes from 1998 through 2002): He’s an intense competitor.

Whether he’s on the mound or the links, El Duque’s spirit is the same. It took him a few holes to begin to enjoy himself as much as the others in the group. It also seemed that he was wound tightly in the first few innings of big games, and his demeanor mirrored that through the first few holes of the golf tournament.

But before long, El Duque’s intensity gave way to ear-to-ear smiles, and the group enjoyed his company and much as they relished his nearly 400-yard drives. Despite El Duque’s mammoth drives, clutch putting by Tiana and several great swings off the fairway by John Mendez and Cliff Rowley, our group didn’t win the tournament.

But, in the end, everyone was happy — even El Duque.

“I enjoyed it,” El Duque said. “It was a good group, and we all played well.”

On January 31, I met with El Duque at a café in Coral Gables for what was one of the most candid interviews I have ever conducted.

I interviewed El Duque for a story on his inspirational life, which will appear in the September Issue of Yankees Magazine and in the second edition of Yankees Magazine en Espanol, which will also come out in September.

The story will detail El Duque’s larger-than-life status in Cuba after he helped bring home an Olympic gold medal. The feature will also shed light on the incredible turn of events that followed. After El Duque’s brother, Livan Hernandez, defected to the United States and earned 1997 World Series MVP honors with the Florida Marlins, the Cuban government banned El Duque from baseball because they believed he had a role in his brother’s defection.

With virtually no chance of ever playing baseball again in Cuba, El Duque became determined to follow his brother to the United States. In what he called “more detail than I’ve ever shared with a journalist” El Duque described how he made the dream of playing baseball in the United States a reality.

“After unsuccessfully trying to leave Cuba eight times, I believed the ninth time would be different,” said El Duque, who along with his wife and six others, set out for the United States on December 26, 1997. “At about 5 in the morning, I walked out into water that was up to my chest at a campsite near the Ministry of the Interior, which is Cuba’s state police. That’s where I had to enter to get to the water. We got on a fishing boat and traveled about eight miles out, past several keys. On the way out to the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, we passed a big Cuban Coast Guard boat, but they didn’t see us because we were lying down on the floor of our boat. The only people they saw were the two fishermen, who owned the boat.

“Once we got about 12 miles out, we were supposed to be picked by a speedboat, but it never came,” El Duque continued. “The two fishermen wanted to go back, but naturally, we wanted to keep going. There was a bit of a fight. Finally, I said, ‘The closest island Anguilla Cay,’ and they decided to drop us off there. We were on Anguilla Cay for four days, and finally the United States Coast Guard showed up in a little red boat. They were going to bring us to another boat, which was going to take us back to Cuba because of the wet foot, dry foot policy. If you don’t make it to the United States, and the Coast Guard catches you, you’re sent back to Cuba. But when we were on the boat, we met a member of the Coast Guard whose parents were Cuban. One of the people who was with me told him that I was El Duque, Livan’s brother. The Coast Guard officer said, ‘They’ve been looking for you for four days.’ And, for some reason, they decided to not put me on the boat back to Cuba.”

From there, El Duque’s brother, along with agent Joe Cubas, was able to secure humanitarian visas for the pitcher, his wife and one of the other defectors. El Duque spent a few more days in the Bahamas, and then went to Costa Rica, where he trained for a visit from several major league scouts.

El Duque’s rapid climb with the Yankees, the joyous reunion with his children — who joined him in the United States later that year — and what he is up to now, is all part this most exclusive story.

After the interview, we walked to Riviera Park, and team photographer James Petrozzello snapped several photos for the story. The image of El Duque sitting on a park bench (below) will be the opening spread of the feature, and in my opinion, it’s a classic shot.

Again, the feature will be published in the September Issue of Yankees Magazine and in the second edition of Yankees Magazine en Espanol, which will also come out in September.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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2 Comments

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