For the first time in his life, Enrique Hernandez won’t be home for the new year.
As 2018 dawns across Puerto Rico, Hernandez will be riding on a float in the Rose Parade. He will be cheered by hundreds of thousands crowded along the streets of Pasadena. He will be seen by scores of millions watching on television, all around the world.
It’s a terrific story: unheralded backup player hits three home runs in the game that clinches the Dodgers’ first World Series appearance in 29 years, gets rewarded with a coveted spot in the iconic Southern California parade.
That’s not the story, actually. The real story is even better.
Hernandez is riding in the parade not because of the three big swings that he took, but because of the one life-changing swing that his father took.
His father, also named Enrique, said he was playing in a softball tournament two years ago when he took a mighty swing and fractured a rib. Freak injury, right?
Enrique Sr. is 47. He works two jobs, part time as a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates and full time as a sales manager for a garden supply company in Puerto Rico. Enrique said his father broke a rib playing squash, then one playing basketball, and the boss of the supply company persuaded him to go see a doctor.
His family had lovingly nagged him to do so for years, without success. Enrique Sr. said he weighed 325 pounds. He figured the doctor would tell him to eat better and lose weight.
One test led to another test, and another, and yet another. One doctor referred him to another doctor, and another, and yet another. The diagnosis: multiple myeloma.
“When everybody tells you ‘cancer,’ you only think you are going to die,” Enrique Sr. said.
Enrique Sr. had coached his son, from his first game as a kid until the time he signed his first pro contract at 18. For all the talks he had with his son over all those years, about baseball and about life, none was as difficult as the one he was about to have. He had to call Enrique in Arizona, where he was working out at the Dodgers’ Camelback Ranch training complex, and share the sad news.
“Your first thought is always to think of the worst,” Enrique said.
Multiple myeloma is cancer of the bone marrow. As cancer cells multiply in the marrow, the bones themselves can weaken. A fracture in an unexpected manner — a swing in a softball game, say — can lead to a myeloma diagnosis, said Dr. Stephen Forman of the City of Hope in Duarte.
The Dodgers partner with the City of Hope on annual “Think Cure” cancer research fundraisers. As the Hernandez family scrambled to learn the options for treating multiple myeloma, the Dodgers put Enrique in touch with Forman, a renowned oncologist who previously had worked with executives and employees referred by the team.
“They’re very good about helping people who work with them or for them, even down to the people who do security or show you to your seats,” Forman said.
After consultation with Forman, the Hernandez family decided against a standard bone marrow transplant, which uses marrow from a donor. If the body rejected the donor marrow, Enrique Sr. could have been forced to fight cancer and the complications of rejection at the same time. Instead, the family opted for a stem cell transplant with his own marrow.
Forman worked with doctors in Puerto Rico and in Tampa, where the Hernandez family opted to do the stem cell transplant. Forman could have done the procedure, Enrique said, but it was easier for family members to travel from Puerto Rico to Florida rather than California. In addition, he said, the Tampa hospital would accept his father’s medical insurance.
It took months for all those tests, and all those consultations. The Dodgers had a 2016 season to play, and Enrique batted .190.
“I went through the roughest time of my career,” he said. “I could have lost all my confidence in my ability to play this game.”
“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I did.”
Ask Enrique Sr. how long ago he had the stem cell transplant, and he recites the date from memory: July 25, 2016.
The myeloma is in remission. He is not cured. There is a fairly high chance the cancer will return, Forman said.
“If the cancer does come back in five to 10 years, you don’t know how much science will advance,” Enrique said, “and if they will have found a cure for it.”
For now, Enrique Sr. is back at work, feeling strong, well enough to travel. He said he had gotten his weight down to 215 pounds, but he put 20 pounds back on as he followed the Dodgers through the playoffs, with a month’s worth of burgers, hot dogs and fries.
“At the stadiums, you don’t eat so healthy,” he said.
There is another date the Hernandez men never will forget: Oct. 19, 2017. That was the day the Dodgers clinched a berth in the World Series.
“From the moment I got to the field that day, it just felt different,” Enrique said. “It felt like I was playing in my backyard.”
The Dodgers were one victory from their first World Series since 1988. Enrique never had hit a home run in a postseason game, or even driven in a run.
He hit a home run in his first at-bat, a grand slam in his next at-bat, another home run in his last at-bat. He drove in seven runs.
The year before, he could not even bat .200, worried that his father might not live to see 2017. That night at Wrigley Field, he celebrated with his teammates, then dashed out of the clubhouse to embrace his father.
“Life was repaying us, in a way,” Enrique said.
“I had a dad where he sacrificed everything to be there with me, and to help me get a career out of this. His dream was to become a big league player. That didn’t happen. He’s basically living not only his dream, but his son’s dream. So it’s extremely special for him. That is a day that neither of us are going to forget one bit, for the rest of our lives.”
Father and son happily accepted Forman’s invitation to ride on the City of Hope float, even if it meant celebrating a new year away from home.
“My dad was all in,” Enrique said, “pretty much because we were going to get Rose Bowl tickets.”
His father’s cancer was far from the only recent turbulence in his life. His grandfather died in September, days before Hurricane Maria smashed into Puerto Rico.
His mother and other family members watched that Wrigley Field game from Puerto Rico, on a television powered by a generator. Three months after Maria struck, his family cannot count on electrical power at home every day.
He criticized President Trump for trivializing hurricane relief efforts; the president had tossed paper towels to survivors as if he were taking a jump shot in a basketball game. Hernandez and his fiancee launched an online campaign that raised $125,000 to help hurricane victims.
His Dodgers lost the World Series — not a tragedy but a wrenching agony. He was so distraught he barely wanted to see his family members before they flew home the next day. He braced for the online hate.
“I was surprised about how much love we got after Game 7,” he said. “I didn’t get any negative tweets. No negative comments on Instagram. It was all positive. The fans were actually proud and thankful for the season that we had.
“If they were that glad about us just getting to the World Series, I can’t imagine how happy they would be if we win it all.”
The fans that line the streets of Pasadena will wave to Hernandez, delighted to see an October hero in their midst. Hernandez will wave back, and in so doing wave farewell to a couple of years that challenged him, pained him, and ultimately strengthened him.
“Life keeps giving me lemons,” he said. “I’ve learned how to make a mean lemonade.”
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin