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Looking Back: “El Duque” and the 1998 Yankees

April 7, 2014

On Christmas Day in 1997, Orlando Hernandez, a thirty-two year old Cuban baseball star, boarded a small boat and set sail for the United States. Hernandez, often known simply by his nickname “El Duque,” was a man seeking greener pastures; a year earlier, he had been banned from Cuban baseball amidst allegations that he had had prohibited contact with an American sports agent. His playing career in Cuba was over and he had his sights set on Major League Baseball.

Hernandez’s immigration attempt, however, was quickly derailed. The U.S. Coast guard seized him and his co-travelers mid-voyage, a surefire sign that Hernandez was headed back to Cuba. But, thanks to some nifty legal maneuvering, Hernandez’s exceptional athletic ability was accepted as grounds for “special admission,” to the U.S. In the blink of an eye, Hernandez went from illegal alien to MLB free agent.

Meanwhile, in the Bronx, New York, the management of the New York Yankees waited with checkbooks in hand. After a disappointing first-round exit in the 1997 MLB playoffs, the Yankees were in the midst of a facelift, and viewed Hernandez as a prized potential asset. The Yankees had already replaced the majority of the 1997 pitching rotation and, adding Hernandez, who would join stars David Wells, David Cone, and Andy Pettitte on the mound, was viewed as a top priority. Eventually, after helping the Cuban star secure a Visa to enter the country, the Yankees won the Hernandez sweepstakes, signing the right-hander to a four-year contract.

On June 3, Hernandez took the mound for the first time and quickly captivated the Yankees’ fan base. “El Duque,” with his hat pushed down over his eyes, sported an unorthodox pitching motion; before each delivery, Hernandez kicked his left leg wildly upwards, almost to eye level, before delivering an array of pitches that kept hitters permanently off-balance. Add on the fact that Hernandez, who spoke little to no English, had only a translator and his wide smile as tools for communication, and the fans and the media had what they wanted: a new cult hero.

Apart from his unusual backstory, Hernandez had another thing going for him; quite simply, he was really good. Starting 21 games in 1998, Hernandez went 12-4 with an earned run average of 3.13, striking out 131 batters and finishing fourth-place in American League Rookie-of-the-Year Voting.

Meanwhile, the rest of the 1998 Yankees were making their own headlines. The one-two punch of David Cone and David Wells finished a combined 38-11, catalyzing the Yankees to a 114-48 record, their highest win total in franchise history. On the offensive side of the ball, emerging star Derek Jeter, just twenty-four years old at the time, batted .324, finishing in the top three in American League MVP voting. The Yankees captured the AL East Division crown, finishing a laughable twenty-two games in front of the second-place Boston Red Sox.

In the playoffs, the Yankees continued their dominant play. The Bronx Bombers faced the Texas Rangers in the ALDS, winning three straight games, en route to a series sweep in which they only allowed one run.

The ALCS, however, proved trickier. The Yankees’ opponent, the Cleveland Indians, were led by the big bats of Jim Thome, David Justice, and an emerging star Manny Ramirez. After the Yankees captured Game 1, the Indians won two consecutive contests, putting the Yankees in a 2-1 hole, with the series’ next two games set to be played in Cleveland. The Yankees would be on the road with their season on the line.

As fate would have it, scheduled to pitch in Game 4 was Orlando Hernandez, who, having not pitched in the ALDS, would be making his first career postseason start in the Yankees’ biggest game of the season thus far.

Unsurprisingly, Hernandez did not disappoint. The rookie pitched seven scoreless innings and outdueled two-time World Series champion and ex-Yankee Dwight Gooden. Hernandez’s Game 4 victory sparked a six-game win streak for the Yankees, who never lost again en route to a 1998 World Series Championship victory, the franchise’s MLB-record 24th title. In the World Series, the Bombers swept the San Diego Padres in four games, dominating the National League champions in a lopsided matchup.

The 1998 World Series title was the first of three consecutive championships for the New York Yankees, cementing themselves as the MLB’s perennial franchise of the 21st century. For “El Duque,” the period from 1998-2000 was undoubtedly the best of his career. In three title-winning seasons, he amassed eight playoff wins, an ALCS MVP award, and a permanent place in New York Yankees folklore. Though his career declined rapidly following the turn of the century, Hernandez and his wild leg kick will forever be revered amongst Yankee fans.

Overall, the New York Yankees’ 1998 season was the start of two new lives; one, for a franchise lacking consistency since the 1970s and another, for a man without true freedom since his birth in 1965. It took a series of unthinkable events for the paths of the Yankees and Orlando Hernandez to cross, but you can rest assured, the fans are, and will continue to be, grateful that they did.

Photo: Delaywaves/Wikipedia

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