Published November 20, 2014
Orlando Hernandez travels to road games now in charter buses. Private jets, luxury hotels and four-course meals don't exist here.
Not in the rookie league.
Games are played in mostly empty ballparks and even a four-time World Series champion has to carry his own equipment.
Around here, "El Duque" is just a 44-year-old pitcher trying to make it to The Show.
"It could be worse," Hernandez says, smiling, mixing English with Spanish in that thick Cuban accent. "In Cuba, we had 14-hour bus rides with no air conditioning, no food, no music, no anything.
"This?" he asks, chuckling. "This is nothing. This is fun. We get to play baseball in new shoes and clean uniforms."
The Gulf Coast League is hardly a place anybody would expect to find a pitcher of his age clamoring for one more shot in the big leagues. Much less a man who escaped persecution in Cuba, defected to the majors and pitched his way into New York Yankees lore.
But all that seems like another lifetime ago.
These days, Hernandez is toiling around where many young hopefuls begin their professional careers. The ballparks here are filled with gimmicks and corky music. The outfield walls are plastered with advertisements, and the majors are only a fantasy that players — most half his age — see on television or read about in books.
Hernandez has his own dreams.
On a minor-league deal with the Nationals, the opportunity — however slim — to join his half brother, Livan, in Washington provides enough motivation. He wants that chance so much he doesn't allow himself to imagine the possibility.
Something even he realizes might be improbable.
Then again, so is his life.
A phenom in his native Cuba, Hernandez was one of the best pitchers the island ever produced. But after Livan fled in 1995, authorities on the Communist island banned him from baseball, believing he conspired in his half-brother's defection and might also follow.
So he escaped by boat to the Bahamas on Christmas Day 1997, was granted a Visa to the United States — through Costa Rica — and later signed as a free agent with the Yankees. He won three titles in New York from 1998-2004 and another as reliever with the Chicago White Sox in 2005.
"That was a dream life," he says.
Now it's back to basics.
Hernandez struggled with his control for Triple-A Oklahoma City last year in the Texas Rangers' organization. He hasn't appeared in the majors since 2007 with the Mets, then a shell of his former self after injuries and aging took their toll.
Now Hernandez is often seen at the Nationals' workout facility before dawn, and he stills finds the energy to complete the team's exercise regiment afterward.
"He's in better shape than anybody in baseball," Livan said. "It's unbelievable."
After feet and toe surgeries derailed his career, Hernandez has rehabilitated and stayed in shape. He's as healthy as he's been in years, he says, and has more money than he'll ever need.
So why pitch? Why live away from his family in Miami, and in such anonymity? Why play at one of professional baseball's lowest levels, with only faint hope of ever making to the majors again?
"Only one reason," he says. "I love baseball."
A game he can't let go.
Hernandez's fastball has lost some zip, and he no longer has pinpoint control. The high-leg kick is gone, replaced with a quick reliever's motion, and the only thing that intimidates batters is his name.
But he still hides the ball as well as anyone, still has that mind-blowing movement, still has that strong work ethic and fierce presence on the mound.
"He was one of the most intense competitors I've ever been around," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who was with Hernandez in New York. "He was a guy you basically trusted with the ball out there because he never shirked away from the competition of the game.
"Even when we played against him when he was with the Mets or something, you were always a little skeptical out there because you knew there may have been something up his sleeve."
Hernandez's age isn't unheard of for a pitcher.
Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer is 47, Randy Johnson pitched for San Francisco at 45 last season and Roger Clemens turned 45 in his final year in the majors in 2007.
None, however, were in the rookie league then.
Hernandez has been pitching one or two innings in relief — the only role he might have left in the majors. He is still announced as "El Duque," a nickname he shared with his father Arnaldo, and even players on opposing teams are on the top steps when he pitches.
The recognition goes beyond the baseball diamond to places he frequents around the Gulf Coast League. People often ask for autographs. Sometimes even players.
"People look at me and I can see them thinking. 'Yes, no, yes, no, maybe,'" he says. "I just smile and laugh, 'Yeah, it's me.'"
Hernandez's other task comes with helping young players.
The Nationals, for instance, optioned fellow Cuban right-hander Yunesky Maya to Viera almost certainly to benefit from Hernandez's guidance. And perhaps Hernandez, too, can learn from a younger generation.
The best chance Hernandez has of pitching in the majors this season, he figures, is when rosters expand from 25 to 40 in September. So even he has to endure that other minor-league tradition: waiting for a call that might not ever come.
"If it was up to me, I'm ready," he says. "I never tire. I can pitch forever, at least I'll try."