After each of his seven professional seasons, Carlos Hernandez has flown 4,000 miles to his home in eastern Venezuela, then walked two blocks to his youth-league field.
There, he asks a question of his former coach, Mario Gonzalez. The answer has never changed, but he asks anyway, “Anyone done it yet?”
“No Carlos,” Gonzalez replies. “You are still the only one.”
No one else has ever hit a baseball out of that park and into the adjacent canal more than 300 feet away.
But Hernandez used to do it so often that he was not allowed to hit until the end of practice. That way, the wet balls would have a full day to dry before being needed again.
“One day I want to come home and hear him tell me somebody has done it better than me,” said Hernandez, the Dodgers’ accomplished rookie catcher. “I am waiting for that day.”
Still the only one . That sits with Hernandez like a late meal, because it extends far beyond the boundaries of that suburban patch of dirt in San Felix.
Hernandez is still the only one from his town of about 500,000 who has played in the major leagues.
He is still the only one from his country of 19 million who plays for the beloved Dodgers, and only one of a few Venezuelans playing major league baseball anywhere.
Although Hernandez appears as only an occasional note during the daily life of the Dodgers, perhaps no player is both as beloved and burdened.
“Being from Venezuela adds much different pressures on a player than if he were from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico,” said Milton Jamail, professor of Latin American studies at the University of Texas and a Latin baseball expert.
“This is a very large country with a very developed media, yet very few players, compared to smaller countries like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,” Jamail added. “This means everything Carlos does is viewed and analyzed by millions.”
Hernandez explained it this way:
“The people in my country, it is like they know everything I do, everything I feel.”
And with good reason. His every at-bat is shown on television throughout the country, even if that game is not being televised.
“My dad was saying that a couple of weeks ago it was crazy; they were televising another game but switching to me playing in New York every time I did something,” said Hernandez, 25. “When I batted. When I threw to second base.”
And after every game he plays, he is a headline.
“There is no question, even if Nolan Ryan throws a no-hitter, the headline in his local paper is going to read, ‘Hernandez goes two-for-four in Dodgers’ victory,’ ” Jamail said.
So far, the pressure has only made him better. Hernandez is batting .333 in 10 starts and has thrown out 38% of potential base stealers. Of the last three runners to stray off first base against him, two were thrown out and the other was picked off.
He knows he is sandwiched in the Dodgers’ catching scheme between two tough Pennsylvanians--Mike Scioscia in front and Mike Piazza behind.
But he also knows if he keeps playing well, he will probably become the starting catcher by next season. Scioscia, after all, is 33 and in the final year of his contract, and Piazza recently began playing in triple-A.
“He can definitely become an outstanding full-time catcher,” said Phil Regan, the Dodgers’ major league scout and Hernandez’s manager for three years at Caracas. “He can hit and throw, he has learned how to take control of a game. . . . The only thing he needs is to learn the hitters, and that is happening right now.”
Hernandez has even survived knuckleballer Tom Candiotti, whom he has caught twice.
In those starts, Candiotti has given up two runs in 15 innings with no wild pitches, and Hernandez has thrown out one of two runners trying to steal and picked off another runner. There have been no passed balls.
“I remember the first time I wanted to start Carlos with Candiotti, (coach) Ben Hines said, ‘You can’t catch him, Candiotti is pitching!’ ” Manager Tom Lasorda recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t care, the kid is here, I’m going to catch him.’ And look what has happened.”
With Hernandez’s every appearance, the voices of his fervent local fans grow louder. Probably no Dodger since Fernando Valenzuela has as many people--mostly transplanted Venezuelans--who so care about what he does.
Several weeks ago, a member of his fan club phoned a Los Angeles reporter in a Montreal hotel room and rambled for 20 minutes about why Hernandez should play more.
“There are a lot of people out there pushing for us, pushing for Carlos,” said Andres Galarraga of the St. Louis Cardinals, a Caracas native. “This attention is good . . . as long as you are doing good.”
Hernandez, though, knows what happens when you struggle. Last winter he missed two weeks of Venezuelan winter-league play because of a bad back.
“There were some days that people were standing in front of my car as I was trying to leave the stadium, asking me what was wrong with me,” Hernandez said.
He rebounded, as he usually does late in season, batting .290 and leading Caracas to another fine season.
“One thing I’ve learned about Carlos--he is a better player under pressure,” Regan said. “He would always perform better in the last weeks and in the playoffs than in the early part of the season. Not every player is like that.”
One reason for Hernandez’s early-winter struggles may be that he is drained by his annual homecoming to San Felix, about a 10-hour drive from Caracas.
“I come home from the season and the kids are waiting at the airport, little kids in baseball uniforms, all of them shouting, ‘We want to be Carlos Hernandez,’ ” Hernandez said. “I ask them, ‘Why me?’ They say, ‘Because you are a star and you still come home to us.’ ”
Hernandez used to be one of those kids. He spent nights in his bedroom looking at a picture of Venezuelan star Tony Armas, who played for the Angels, Pirates, Boston Red Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and dreaming of joining him in the major leagues.
Hernandez was so upset when Gonzalez began making him bat last each day, to save the baseballs, that he threw rocks at the coach. He was suspended from the team for a couple of games.
“I stood on the street outside the park the whole time crying, ‘Please, please, let me come back,’ ” Hernandez said.
As a star third baseman, Hernandez was spotted by Dodger scouts when he was playing for an all-star youth team in Caracas.
“I signed with them because I had been saying to myself, I would go to the first team that asked, I didn’t care who,” Hernandez said.
He didn’t even blink when the Dodgers, impressed with his arm, moved him to catcher in 1986, during his second season of rookie league ball. When he finally played in his first major league game, April 20, 1990, his father heard about it while pulling into his driveway in San Felix.
Because his debut was being televised--of course--his father jumped out of his car and ran into the house to watch and saw his son get a double off the Jim Deshaies of the Houston Astros in his second at-bat during a 4-2 Dodger loss.
It wasn’t until much later that he realized he had forgotten to turn off the engine.