Hernandez story one for history books

October 24, 1997|By KEN ROSENTHAL

CLEVELAND -- The mercenary Marlins are now one victory away from winning the World Series, but for the sake of poor Jim Leyland's stomach, this column will be easy to digest, a veritable antacid to the game's ills.

Leyland said before Game 5 that criticism of the Series was "making me puke," but perhaps now his tummy will feel better. Last night, Livan Hernandez offered a fresh reminder of all that this troubled sport can be.

Hernandez, 22, pitched into the ninth inning to defeat Cleveland, 8-7, displaying remarkable poise for a kid with every reason to crumble, considering all that was transpiring on and off the field.

Game 5 was supposed to be shown on television in his native Cuba, but NBC News reported that the Castro regime scrambled the signal, and that only the radio broadcast reached the island.

Hernandez defected from Cuba in 1994, leaving his mother, sister and other relatives behind. He's more than a future All-Star. He's a political symbol, a Cuban defector starring in America's national pastime.

At its best, baseball remains a game of limitless possibilities. The romance might be fading in this country, but not in places like Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Japan, where the game's allure remains as powerful as ever.

Indeed, the expansion that matters is not the kind that lines the owners' pockets, but the kind that sends scouts into international markets, searching for new and better talent.

A year ago, Andruw Jones of Curacao became the youngest player to hit a home run in the World Series. Last night, Hernandez became the first rookie starting pitcher in 50 years to earn two victories in the game's showcase event.

He did it in unfamiliar cold weather. He did it after falling behind 4-2 in the third inning. He did it knowing the significance of his performance to the Cuban exile community in South Florida.

"Obviously, you couldn't compare him to Michael Jordan in Chicago, but on a short-term level, he's probably as large as a guy like Ryne Sandberg in Chicago," said Marlins catcher Gregg Zaun, a former Oriole.

"It remains to be seen what kind of longevity this kid is going to have. But with the Cuban-American community in South Florida and his ability on the field, he has the potential to be larger than life."

Hernandez was mobbed in Miami's Little Havana after his 15-strikeout masterpiece in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series, and though no one knows for sure, he's probably just as big a hit in the original Havana, too.

According to a Marlins official, he's trying to keep a low profile, knowing that any hype will only antagonize Castro and delay any chance of his family joining him in America.

The problem is, it's awfully difficult to keep a low profile when you're a World Series hero. The better Hernandez performs, the greater the embarrassment he creates for Castro, the more difficult he makes it for his family to leave.

Does he think about his mother?

"If I do, I start getting into trouble," Hernandez said through an interpreter. "I think about her before, and I think about her now. I take her out there with me, but I really can't think about her."

Hernandez knew of the radio broadcast to Cuba.

"They saw me as well," he said.

How?

"It's a secret," he added with a smile, apparently unaware that the TV signal was scrambled.

It was a special night, a magical night, a night that could have ended in disaster. Hernandez allowed a three-run homer by Sandy Alomar in the third inning. He walked eight and struck out only two.

But he endured.

My, how he endured.

He threw his second dugout tantrum of the Series after the Alomar homer, but the injured Alex Fernandez helped calm him in the dugout, saying, "Take it easy. Take it slow. There's still a lot of baseball to be played. We're going to win the game."

Hernandez lasted all the way to the ninth, throwing an astonishing 142 pitches. Robb Nen nearly blew his 8-4 lead, but after an electrifying Indians comeback, Florida held on.

The ninth included two apparent blown calls by first base umpire Ken Kaiser, two errors by the Marlins and a near-misplay on a fly ball to Gary Sheffield for the final out.

But what, Hernandez worry?

His postseason highlights now include:

Becoming the youngest pitcher to win a World Series opener, eclipsing a mark set by Boston's Smokey Joe Wood in 1912.

Joining Burt Hooton, Dave Stewart, Jack Morris, Orel Hershiser and John Smoltz as the only pitchers to earn four victories in a single postseason.

Defeating the 39-year-old Hershiser twice in matchups that featured the greatest age differential in World Series history.

Not bad for a kid who last season blew part of his $2 million bonus on a Mercedes, Ferrari and pickup truck and gained 30 pounds in his first exposure to fast food.

"I was preoccupied with adjusting to the American way of life," Hernandez said before Game 1. "I worried about my family and how they were doing. I ate too much. I had no friends. I don't know. Really, a lot of stuff.

"In this country," he continued, "the first thing you have to do is don't go crazy. You have to find good friends. A lot of people want to get close to you, but you don't know who they are. You have to come here and work."

And so work he did, reporting to spring training at his normal 220 pounds. He joined the Marlins in mid-June, and became only the third starting pitcher in major-league history to open his career with nine consecutive wins.

Last night, he entered another realm.

In America. In Cuba. All over the baseball world.

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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