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BASEBALL : Hernandez Now Most Recognized Replacement

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Guillermo (Willie) Hernandez trudged through the clubhouse door Thursday afternoon, stopped off at his locker only long enough to shed his clothes, and within minutes was soaking his 40-year-old body inside a whirlpool.

“My legs are sore,” he said. “My back is sore. My body is sore.

“I may not look so bad, but when you do nothing for four years, you hurt.”

In six hours, Hernandez would be pitching for the New York Yankees, wearing a major league uniform for the first time since 1989.

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During a spring when anyone with triple-A experience is considered a superstar, there is Hernandez, who can’t leave his clubhouse without teammates pleading for his autograph.

Hernandez, after all, is one of only nine players to have won the Cy Young and most valuable player awards. That happened in 1984, when Hernandez saved 32 of 33 games for the Detroit Tigers, won a World Series, and received a five-year contract for nearly $5 million.

Now, Hernandez is back, as a replacement player.

“It’s sad, the whole thing is sad,” said expatriate Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson. “Why would someone want to come back when their career is over? Why would anyone want to come back to this?”

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Hernandez, who last pitched in the big leagues Aug. 18, 1989, had given up on baseball after his comeback ended in 1991 for triple-A Syracuse. He worked three months as an agent before deciding he hated the business. He went back home to Puerto Rico and worked for a steel manufacturing firm.

“I was depressed, I was frustrated, I was everything,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t even watch a game since I last pitched.

“But I know I didn’t want to retire. I wanted to go out my way, not their way.”

The spirit was willing, but the arm gave way. Hernandez underwent elbow surgery after the 1989 season, and except for that 10 2/3-inning stint for Syracuse, no one was willing to give him a look.

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Now, when major league teams are looking for anyone willing to cross the picket line, Hernandez found a match.

Hernandez doesn’t believe it’s fair that he’s labeled a strikebreaker, nor does he think apologies are necessary.

“Why should anyone be concerned?” he said, “I’m not trying to break the strike. The only reason I’m here is because people have given me a chance to make the ballclub.”

Hernandez, pitching on 2,035 days’ rest, showed Thursday that he still is at least capable. He threw six pitches in the sixth inning, retiring three Atlanta Brave batters on two fly balls and a groundout.

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