The El Duque Documentary

Orlando Hernandez

El Duque was always my favorite Yankees pitcher. His first start for the Yankees came on June 3, 1998 when I was 11 years old and at the end of sixth grade. His high leg kick, the way he changed speeds and the way he pitched in big games helped mold me into the fan I am today.

When I heard there would be an ESPN 30 for 30 titled Brothers in Exile on El Duque and his brother Livan Hernandez, I treated it with the hype and anticipation I have to see Dumber and Dumber To. And because it was a pleasant trip down memory lane to when the Yankees won every year coming off this miserable season, I decided to write down my thoughts as I watched how El Duque got to the Yankee Stadium mound on June 3, 1998.

– The El Duque leap over the base line is an every-fifth-day moment I miss. His half-jog/half-spring to the mound and back to the dugout each inning as if he couldn’t wait to get out there and pitch and get the next inning moving so he could get back out there again is also missed.

– Since I don’t speak Spanish and a lot of the documentary is in Spanish with subtitles, it makes it hard to write down everything. And with Time Warner Cable’s DVR being as reliable as CC Sabathia will be in 2015, there’s a lot of starting and stopping and fast forwarding and rewinding going on when El Duque speaks. This makes me realize how poor of a decision it was to have him in the booth this season on YES where he was asked question after question by Michael Kay, who had no sense of how difficult it was for El Duque to understand English and produce an English answer, even as Paul O’Neill kept bailing him out. I wouldn’t expect anything better from Michael Kay as the lead of a broadcast team.

– I wonder if El Duque still has the No. 40 Yankees jersey someone in Cuba gave him that he wore all the time. Seeing that put a cherry on top of his Yankees career as did him saying, “I was a Yankees fan and that’s the team I wanted to play for.”

– Brian Cashman missed on Hideki Irabu and if Gordon Blakeley hadn’t convinced him that El Duque was worth signing, the Yankees probably don’t win the 1998 World Series and who knows about the 1999 and 2000 World Series. Thank you, Gordon Blakley and sorry to see you go to Atlanta this offseason.

– El Duque getting $6.6 million as a stud international free agent has to be the best bargain of all time when you consider what the Yankees got in return on their investment. Four years after El Duque’s deal, Jose Contreras got a four-year, $32 million deal from the Yankees. Nine years after El Duque’s deal, Kei Igawa got a five-year, $20 million deal from the Yankees. Masahiro Tanaka made $22 million in 2014 and will again in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.

– On the day of El Duque’s MLB debut on June 3, 1998 at Yankee Stadium, they show his locker in the clubhouse and whose locker and nameplate is right next to his? Homer Bush! Aside from having no power (11 home runs in 1,377 career plate appearances), Bush did hit .348/.389/.416 in 64 games for the Yankees over three seasons and did contribute two stolen bases in the 1998 playoffs.

– Joe Torre said, “I was a little skeptical because I didn’t know what kind of command he had” going into that debut and El Duque posted the following line: 7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 7 K, 1 HR. After the performance, Torre said, “He could pretty much put the ball wherever he wanted to.”

– It brings back memories to see the Yankees on MSG rather than YES and Al Trautwig doing the pregame and postgame shows and Ken Singleton and Jim Kaat alone in the booth. Can we go back to a Michael Kay-less booth? Give the lead play-by-play to Singleton and rotate the others in. Please?

– Bill Madden questioning whether El Duque would be able to handle the pressure of pitching in New York and in the postseason after El Duque had been harassed by the Cuban government, put his life on the line by defecting the country, ended up on an island for four days with no sign of being rescued and then needing a Hail Mary from agent Joe Cubas to work out to be given freedom says a lot about Bill Madden.

I believe what made El Duque the ultimate postseason pitcher was that the idea of pitching in the playoffs was a joke to him when it came to pressure and an insult to the word “pressure”. He could have easily lost his life trying to leave Cuba and if he had been caught, his life would have been over anyway as he would have spent the rest of it in jail. He sacrificed the chance of never seeing his children and family ever again and left his entire life behind him to come to the United States. I’m pretty sure facing Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome in a baseball game didn’t exactly faze him.

– Brian Cashman refers to the Indians as the odds-on favorite in the 1998 ALCS with a 2-1 series lead. That’s clearly Cashman just downplaying the situation as he does with every player or game considering the Yankees went 114-48 and the Indians went 89-73. We don’t need to downplay everything, Cashman. I’m sure if the Yankees were to trade for Mike Trout today, Cashman would say, “We’re getting an average defender who can hit for contact with a little bit of power, but his ceiling isn’t that high.”

– I remember reading about Joe Torre saying how calm El Duque was on the morning of Game 4 knowing that a loss would likely lead to the end of the Yankees’ season and I was able to find a quote from Torre referencing that day.

“I saw El Duque at a buffet luncheon at the hotel, and he was passing out plates of food to people as if he was one of the waiters. He seemed pretty relaxed to me.”

Apparently El Duque was relaxed because here is his line from the Game 4 start: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 6 K.

That ALCS Game 4 start helped continue the late-90s Yankees dynasty as the Yankees would win three straight games in the series to advance to the World Series (and win four straight there). Had El Duque not done what he did in Cleveland, the Yankees trail 3-1 in the series and are likely one championship less and that 114-win regular season is remembered much differently.

– El Duque made 14 playoff starts from the Yankees from 1998-2002 and 2004 and went 9-2 including an 8-0 start to that record. Here is his line from those 14 starts: 90.1 IP, 70 H, 30 R, 28 ER, 51 BB, 93 K, 8 HR, 2.99 ERA, 1.340 WHIP.

He also made three relief appearances from the Yankees (one in Game 5 of the 2000 ALDS and two in the 2002 ALDS). Here is his line in relief (he took the loss in Game 3 of the 2001 ALCS): 6.2 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 8 K, 2 HR, 2.70 ERA, 0.890 WHIP.

– It was fitting that El Duque started and won the clinching game of the World Series a year after his brother helped the Marlins to the World Series while El Duque was still in Cuba listening to the Marlins win over the Indians on a radio. His line from Game 4: 7 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 7 K.

– Ricky Ledee gets a hit in the footage of Game 4 of the World Series and Joe Buck says, “There’s another hit for Ledee.” Ledee went 6-for-10 with three doubles and four RBIs in the series. I miss the days of role players on the Yankees getting big hits and overachieving and never have I missed them more than after a year of Brian Roberts, Kelly Johnson and Stephen Drew.

– The documentary doesn’t show any El Duque highlights from after 1998, but I will always remember how fun he was to watch pitch in 2004, going 8-2 with a 3.30 ERA in his return. (He could have had more than eight wins, but got a no-decision in a seven-inning shutout, 10-strikeout game and another no-decision in a six-inning, two-run game.) He started Game 4 of the ALCS and would have earned the series-clinching win if not for some ninth-inning comeback that I vaguely remember happening.

– The following fall in 2005, I was in Boston at college on a Friday (Oct. 7) waiting to go home for Columbus Day Weekend and go to Game 4 of the Yankees-Angels ALDS. I was watching Game 3 of the Red Sox-White Sox ALDS. The White Sox led the series 2-0 and in the bottom of the sixth, the Red Sox trailed 4-3 with the bases loaded and no outs after Damaso Marte couldn’t retire any of the three hitters he faced (single, walk, walk). El Duque came in to relieve Marte. He got Jason Varitek to pop out in foul territory. Then he got Tony Graffanino to pop out to short. And then in a full count against Johnny Damon, he struck him out swinging on the seventh pitch of the at-bat. El Duque returned in the seventh to pitch a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts and came back out for the eighth and pitched around a two-out single.

El Duque went into the worst kind of jam there is against the defending champions and . It brought a smile to my face, not only because he ended the Red Sox’ season, but because he was doing what he had always done: pitched his best when it mattered the most. He was just doing it for another team even though he should have only ever done it for the Yankees.