Baseball was their lifeline, tugging at the hearts of Livan and Orlando Hernandez even while the political machinations of their native country worked furiously to cast them apart.
For these two brothers, the pristine joy of throwing a little white ball so it could not be hit came with a heavy price: two years when ocean waters were thicker than blood, a painful separation that wouldn’t end until Orlando made a perilous bid for freedom.
Now, with a ball in their hands, a mound of dirt under their feet and plenty of money in their pockets, it all seems worthwhile. Livan is a World Series MVP. Orlando is the toast of New York.
Most important, they are walking together again. Their teams may be different, but they are brothers once more.
“The one thing you always want is your dreams and your hopes,” Livan said. “As long as you have those, everything is fine. I always kept those. I knew that one day we would be back together and be here in the United States.”
A couple of weeks ago, they spent a weekend enjoying the sights and sounds of New York when Livan’s Florida Marlins were in town to meet Orlando’s Yankees. They dined at a Cuban restaurant, reminiscing about the past and pondering a future that looks so much brighter.
“This is a special time,” Livan said. “I’m very happy and very content with everything that’s been happening.”
Orlando and Livan actually are half-brothers, sharing the same father, former Cuban pitching great Arnaldo Hernandez. For two years, they pitched together on the powerful national team--Orlando the star known as “El Duque,” Livan the rising phenom, “Little Duke.”
But Livan had no intention of succumbing to the penury that even star athletes must endure on that secluded island nation -- riding from game to game in rickety buses, taking the field in sneakers instead of cleats, scrambling to find enough gloves.
“The players are good, almost as good as here,” Orlando said. “The only thing that makes them different are the conditions in Cuba.”
Only 20, Livan defected while the national team was on a trip to Mexico in September 1995. Signed by Marlins and given a $2.5 million bonus, he gorged on the American lifestyle--literally--finding it hard to drive past a McDonald’s or Burger King. Soon, he had put on nearly 30 pounds, endangering his American dream before it had hardly begun.
But Livan learned to eat less, work more and listen to those around him. Midway through last season, he was called up by the Marlins, winning nine games during the regular season, then capturing MVP honors in both the NL championship series and the World Series.
Back in Cuba, Orlando endured the wrath of Cuban baseball officials who believed he had helped his little brother and others escape. Though he resisted the temptation to defect himself and had a career amateur record of 129-47, El Duque was suspended from Cuban baseball and forced to toil as a physical therapist in a mental hospital for less than $10 a month.
Last Dec. 26, the urge to get back on the mound overwhelmed Orlando, who joined seven others in boarding a tiny boat and heading out into the warm, turquoise waters that divide Cuba from the rest of the world.
Ten hours later, the vessel swallowing up water, they landed safely in a remote section of the Bahamas. A couple of months later, Orlando was a full-blown Yankee, though he was adorned in black-and-white pinstripes rather than red, white and blue.
So far, El Duque has managed to avoid the pitfalls of abundance that nearly swallowed his younger brother, or the isolation that confounded Japanese star Hideki Irabu when he first arrived in New York.
Orlando’s sinewy body is bereft of stretch marks, even though he now understands that he doesn’t have to pay for the clubhouse buffet. His love for the game is clearly evident to teammates who struggle to communicate with him verbally. He sprints on and off the field, and remains behind in the dugout even after a poor outing to cheer on his new team.
“He is a hard worker. He really takes care of his body,” catcher Jorge Posada said. “I don’t think he’s going to get into the hamburgers.”
Clearly, El Duque is from the old school, wearing his socks just below his knees and the bill of his cap just above his eyelids, but no one seems quite sure how old he is. The media guides says 28. Livan claims his brother is only 27. Others have estimated he is at least 33.
But age doesn’t mean a thing when El Duque kicks his left leg high in the air and unleashes a variety of pitches from a confounding array of angle, not unlike another great Latin pitcher, Luis Tiant.
Orlando quickly earned a spot in the New York rotation and is 2-1 with a 2.30 ERA, despite lasting only 3 2-3 innings against the Braves in his last start. He walked four, stymied by hitters who resisted his pitched just off the corners.
“Atlanta hitters are very disciplined,” he said. “Today was their lucky day. My pitches weren’t strikes, but they weren’t that far out.
Down in south Florida, Livan has rebounded from a poor start with the dismal Marlins. He seemed especially shaken by the breakup of the team that won the World Series just a few months ago, struggling to cope with being the only recognizable name on a pitching staff that once included Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Alex Fernandez and Robb Nenn.
“I think it put a lot of unnecessary pressure on him,” manager Jim Leyland said. “All those guys were gone, and everybody just assumed this guy was going to be some kind of savior. It was not fair to do that to him. He wasn’t ready for that.”
Despite being accused of assault recently by an ex-girlfriend, Livan (6-4) has thrown two straight complete games and now has gone the distance five times this season. He is strong and durable, possessing a wicked curve that nips at the edge of the plate and an undeniable confidence that borders on arrogance.
“He really had no in-between,” Leyland said. “He had a tremendous high with all the success he had last year, and a tremendous low when we lost all those guys. He’s just starting to settle back in the middle again.”
At least Livan doesn’t have to worry about staying in contact with his brother anymore. They can talk by phone, watch each other on television and look forward to spending the winter months together, brothers again.
“The offseason,” Posada said, “is going to be awesome for them.”
The season hasn’t been too bad, either. When the Marlins and Yankees met in that interleague series three weeks ago, El Duque and Livan didn’t have to concern themselves with actually pitching against each other--the rotations of their respective teams kept them apart.
That was one separation they didn’t mind a bit.
“I really wouldn’t want to pitch against him,” Livan said. “It would probably be a good show, but it wouldn’t be good for us.”