Remembering The El Duque Era

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It’s been nearly four full years since he last stepped onto a Major League field, but it wasn’t until yesterday that Orlando Hernandez officially announced his retirement from baseball. The one they call “El Duque” spent parts of nine seasons in the big leagues, pitching for both New York teams as well as the White Sox and Diamondbacks. He was also a National and a Ranger at various points, but in name only. He never pitched for either team. The vast majority of his career was spent in pinstripes (exactly two-thirds of his career innings, in fact), during which time he was one of the most unique players in franchise history.

A fixture on the Cuban National Team for the better part of a decade, El Duque defected from Cuba on Christmas Day in 1997, eventually gaining asylum in Costa Rica after a stop in the Bahamas. The Yankees won the sweepstakes to sign Hernandez that winter, inking him to a four-year contract worth $6.6M. Initial reports said he was 28, but others suggested he was 32. I bet if they had chopped the guy open like a tree and counted the rings, they would have gotten another number entirely.

Despite his extensive experience in Cuba and in international competition, the Yankees had El Duque begin the 1998 season with two starts in Single-A before a quick promotion to Triple-A. He made seven starts for Columbus, then made his big league debut on June 3rd, replacing Ramiro Mendoza in the rotation. I remember that first start well, and for the same reason so many other people remember El Duque: the leg kick. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before, his knee hiding his face, the hands below the foot, it was everything I could ever conjure up while playing wiffle ball except on the big league field.

Hernandez held the then-Devil Rays to five hits and one run over seven innings that night in the Bronx, a preview of what was to come. El Duque threw a complete game four-hitter the next time out, then followed that up with a two runs in 7.2 IP in his third start. Only three times in his first 14 starts did he allow more than two earned runs, and he completed at least seven innings ten times during that stretch. Hernandez finished the season with a 3.13 ERA and a 12-4 record in 21 starts, earning him a fourth place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. His True Yankee™ moment came in Game Four of the ALCS, when he fired seven three-hit, shutout innings against the powerhouse Indians with the Yankees staring a potential 3-1 series deficit in the face. Seven one-run innings in Game Two against the Padres in the World Series followed, as did his first ring.

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

El Duque made 33 starts the next year, going 17-9 with a 4.12 ERA. He made four postseason starts and won them all, which is usually what happens when you allowed just four earned runs in 30 IP. In Game One of the World Series, he struck out ten and allowed just a single hit to outpitch Greg Maddux. Things went a little south for Hernandez in 2000, though he still started 29 games and posted a 4.51 ERA. The Yankees again went to the postseason, but El Duque took his first career playoff loss against the Mets in Game Three of the World Series. Four runs and a dozen strikeouts in 7.1 IP is hardly the end of the world though.

Injuries and ineffectiveness started to creep into the picture in 2001, when he managed just 16 starts and a 4.85 ERA. Hernandez’s Yankees career came to an end after the 2002 season, or so we thought. He was traded to the White Sox in January 2003 for reliever Antonio Osuna and a minor leaguer, who then flipped him to the Expos as part of a package for Bartolo Colon later that day. El Duque didn’t throw a single pitch in 2003 due to injury, and more than a year after trading him away, the Yankees signed Hernandez late in Spring Training in 2004. As it turned out, he ended up being a savior that season, pitching to a 3.30 ERA in 15 second half starts. He also made a representative start (5 IP, 3 R) in the ALCS against the Red Sox.

The Yankees allowed Hernandez to leave as a free agent after the season, officially closing the book on the career in pinstripes. The veteran right-hander contributed 876.1 IP with a 3.96 ERA to the Yankees’ cause, not to mention postseason dominance that is still kinda hard to believe. El Duque threw 102 IP in the playoffs for the Yankees from 1998-2004, pitching to a 2.65 ERA. He won three rings in New York and was less than an inning away from winning a fourth, one win away from going to a fifth World Series.

* * *

El Duque isn’t a Hall of Famer, far from it. He never even made an All-Star Team, and only twice in his career did he throw more than 165 IP in a season. He made a great first impression in 1998 but gradually got worse and worse each year, though he always had a flair for the dramatic. I remember him throwing his glove to Tino Martinez after Rey Ordonez’s comebacker got caught in the webbing. I remember when he stood in the first base line with his arms crossed after fielding a grounder while Coco Crisp tried to juke his way to first. I remember the eephus pitches. I remember the smile. I remember the delivery and guarantee it’ll be in the wiffle ball arsenal for life. El Duque is an All-Joy Team first ballot Hall of Famer, the pitcher that didn’t just pitch a great game but also put on a great show while doing it.

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  • Plank

    I was just in Detroit and my friend was telling me how beloved Brandon Inge was to Tigers fans. As he was describing it, I thought of how El Duque is regarded in NY. He was never the best, though he was really good at times. He will always be remembered in the warmest regard in NY and he’ll always be my favorite Yankee of that era.

    I guess every team has their El Duque from time to time. A good player who captivated the crowd and inspired the kids in the crowd. I’m glad Hernandez was our El Duque.

  • Nick

    I remember when he threw that eephus pitch to Arod at the Old Stadium in ’02. That ball still hasn’t landed yet.

    • Tubby

      I was thinking the same thing. The pitch was so slow that Arod started, stopped, and re-started his swing before absolutely crushing it. IIRC, didn’t it land in the left field bleachers?

  • http://www.twitter.com/brandonholley B-Rando

    Do the El-El-El-El-El-El Duque.

    Love that guy and what he brought to the team his first few years on the Yanks. I’m glad to see he can walk away from the game with 3 championships and such a warm legacy in the hearts of Yankees fans.

  • Esteban

    Loved this guy. Oh and yeahhh Cubans represent.

    • Jorge

      +1 from another Cuban. El Duque has actually been at my dad’s house. :)

  • I am not the droids you’re looking for…

    I fucking love El Duque.

    That is all.

  • The209

    hey Mike,

    Enjoyable read, and well-written.

    That last paragraph is perfect: best bit i’ve seen here in awhile, and better than anything all those (non-joe pawl) Fangraphs windbags regularly spit out.

    • Your 7th -grade English Teacher

      Well written, except for: “he was one of the *most unique* players in franchise history”.

      C-

      • Esteban

        Yeah the really unique/most unique thing bothers me. Unique means one of a kind.

  • https://twitter.com/TheRealJeromeS Jerome S.

    Being fifteen sucks, that ad is fucking hilarious.

    • Esteban

      I feel bad that you younger fans couldn’t enjoy the dynasty. Were you even born yet in ’96?

      • https://twitter.com/TheRealJeromeS Jerome S.

        Legend and I were born in the same year.

      • Jorge

        I would have loved for some of the younger fans to have been around for the Stump Merrill years.

      • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

        I’m 18 and I remember the 2000 World Series.

  • Adam

    Loved El Duque…I was at his first start against the (Devil) Rays and distinctly remember a guy sitting behind me in the upper deck screaming in a thick Bronx accent for nearly seven innings, “Come on El Duche!”

  • Yank The Frank

    It’s great fun watching guys like El Duque pitch for your team. He always reminded me of Luis Tiant.

  • Billion$Bullpen

    One of my top 5 or 6 favorite Yankees I ever saw play. Wish they did a retire as a Yankee press conf

  • Paul D

    El Duque was great, but if i remember correctly, he also flaked out of one of his starts in the 2004 ALCS when we really needed him.

  • Hugh

    “All-Joy Team”. Love it and agree 100%. He was so great to watch.

  • bt

    Great post about a Yankee who burned bright and fast, and who people couldn’t help but love. I second the notion of an official Yankees press conference.

  • A.D.

    The 2.55 playoff ERA, and “big-game pitcher” tag will always keep the legend a bit greater than the regular season numbers

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Clay_Bellinger Clay Bellinger

    Very cool write up. Nice to read through and think back about a guy like this.

  • Micah

    “Hernandez’s Yankees career came to an end after the 2002 season, or so we though.”

    “El Duque didn’t throw a single pick in 2003 due to injury,”

    Great post, but I just don’t understand why you insist on NOT EDITING ANYTHING YOU RIGHT, Mike. I love your writing, but you have TYPOS ALL OVER THE PLACE. It drives me crazy, and I’m this close to dropping RAB altogether. Either get a copy-editor, or have some price in your work. It’s about time. Stop being so f***ing lazy.

    • Micah

      By the way, I wrote “RIGHT” instead of “WRITE” and “PRICE” instead of “PRIDE” to make a point – it’s ANNOYING, RIGHT?

      • gc

        And for the record, I agree with you. It takes all of a couple minutes to simply read through what you’ve written and fix the glaring errors, or use a spell check program that does it for you. It’s easy, it shows you care about what you’re doing as a writer, and that you respect your readers to give them the best that they deserve. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing correctly.

        • Yank The Frank

          You get what you pay for and in this case you are way ahead.

        • http://twitter.com/urbainshockcor Urban

          Actually, editing your own copy is difficult. You won’t see the errors that other people do because your mind sees what it knows is there, even if it’s not.

          Mike and company do a great job. This is not the Wall Street Journal or the NY Times, which has rewrite editors, copy editors, etc. Typos are okay in a blog. They don’t put them there just to annoy you.

      • Jim S

        Being able to read well-thought-out articles on a baseball team that I love while tolerating some typos >>>>>>>> reading how much you hate typos while mis-using both capital letters and a dash.

    • gc

      You mean, “anything you WRITE,” not “RIGHT.” That’s kind of an important thing to spell check if you’re going to knock someone for their typos and editing miscues.

    • https://twitter.com/TheRealJeromeS Jerome S.

      I’m sure Mike is quaking in his boots right now.

      • Mister Delaware

        You mean his boats.

    • jsbrendog

      if youre seriously going to stop coming here because of the most minor of spelling errors then i’ll help you pack your internet bags

      • Sayid J.

        But… it is true. The spelling errors really are pretty silly. It’s indicative of a lack of editing that’s a little bit embarrassing for a site of this size and popularity. I know almost every game recap I send Mike an email with an error or two.

        • Jim S

          Right, sending him a quick, polite email requesting a grammar correction is the way to do these things, as they request(and I’m sure appreciate).

          Posting an obnoxious public comment about it does nothing.

          • Sayid J.

            I acknowledge that. I guess it’s just the sentiment that it really does reflect poorly on the site that day after day there are errors. Look, I love this site. It has unbelievable content and that’s why I keep coming back, but sometimes the spelling errors really do annoy me, only in the “how did this get past them?” way.

    • Jim S

      Boy it’s really unfortunate that he’s just wasting all those dollars you so lovingly throw his way. What a jerk.

      Oh wait, what? It’s free? You don’t pay anything for it?

      …Well then.

      Although I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you hired(and paid the salary for) a copy editor for him.

      • Sayid J.

        This is the dumbest meme on all of RAB. Sure, the content is free, but there is free content all over the web that doesn’t have spelling errors. Just because we don’t have to pay doesn’t mean that spelling errors don’t come across as careless.

        • Jim S

          If you don’t like it, go elsewhere. I’ll take the content here over the grammar at ESPN.

          • Sayid J.

            I’ve never threatened to go elsewhere, but I don’t get why that’s always the response. Why can’t I dislike and NOT go elsewhere, like i have for years. Why can’t I dislike it and just want it to be fixed?

            • Jim S

              You can, which is why they have a system in place for those commenters who dislike grammar errors to let them know they made a mistake.

              I enjoy mistake-free writing. I enjoy using the masses to correct myself. I don’t enjoy when people get up on their high horse and publicize their outrage using ridiculous hyperbole.

              • Sayid J.

                I know, I email Mike fairly often with typos, but I think the point is that we/I shouldn’t have to. And whether or not I do or do not email Mike, it still reflects poorly on the site that there are consistently errors.

                • http://twitter.com/urbainshockcor Urban

                  Perhaps you would like a job, for free, as a copy editor?

            • jsbrendog

              you can, im not saying you cant. im saying that (through no fault of your own) your stance is hurt by people like the commentor above who (laughingly) threatens to take his “business” elsewhere because mike wrote pick instead of pitch.

              • Jim S

                this this this this this this this.

        • Mr. Hand

          are we really having a debate on grammar and usage on a yankees sports blog?

          i get all the points, but geesh…this is silly.

          • Sayid J.

            It’s not a debate. There’s nothing to debate; there are several spelling errors in this piece, and in many others. Some people just want it to be fixed. I don’t get why they get treated like shit for voicing their opinions. I’m not saying Micah did it with tact or that I will defend how he went about doing it, but I agree that the spelling errors are annoying and indicate a level of carelessness that I don’t expect to find here.

            • Mr. Hand

              like everyone said, there is a mechanism for that…but to post public comments and carry on is ridiculous…

        • Jim S

          And like I said above, remind him politely in an email, as requested.

          Don’t go all insane and start cursing over a freaking typo.

      • sean

        please the “it’s free so stop complaining” comment is just so played out. We get it’s free and we can still expect quality. Mike/Joe and Ben can come to their own defense as i’m sure they check these comments now and again. We are well aware we have a choice as to whether we read this page or not…enough with that reminder.

        • Jim S

          If you’re aware, then tell everyone else who’s “aware” to stop calling the writers lazy.

    • Mr. Hand

      -100000000

      go somewhere else. this is the most pathetic thing I’ve ever read on the interwebs…

      • Micah

        Oh I’ve definitely complained about this before AND sent emails- I’m only being obnoxious now because enough is enough. If this blog wants to be truly professional, Mike will fix this utter bulls*** laziness. Typos convey a lack of care and a sense of stupid hurry. Do it right, Mike. Your reputation deserves it.

        • Jim S

          And THIS sentiment I don’t get. How in the world can something like this piss you off that much?

          And since when is being obnoxious the adult solution to a problem?

        • Mr. Hand

          if finding typos on a website is one of the biggest problems you have, then your life is pretty good…

          • Micah

            I volunteer to edit EVERY POST from now on. Mike has my email address. I live in Tokyo so timing may be difficult, but I’ll do as much as I can for zero compensation. Up to you, Mike.

            • Jim S

              Have a hard time believing Mike’s going to want to work with someone who thinks he’s F****** lazy.

            • Mr. Hand

              if you want to volunteer for something, go find a soup kitchen or help the homeless or raise funds for a cause…do something more worthwhile with your time.

              • Micah

                Wait really? That’s your response? Awesome.

                • Mr. Hand

                  typos, typos, typos

                  there…is that better?

                  • Micah

                    Much.

            • jsbrendog

              yu shod juzt relacks becuz id realy iznt ah beeg deel.

              goh hahv summ tee oar sumtin

            • Chris in Maine

              May Godzilla and Mothra tag team your sorry a$$. Seriously though, take it offline, I sure that Mike would appreciate constructive critism handled in an appropriate manner.

        • http://twitter.com/urbainshockcor Urban

          You’re anonymous. You complain. You add nothing to this site. Worse, you waste time.

          We will not miss you.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

      Fuck you for calling someone who puts this much time into the site lazy. Seriously. You have no fucking idea.

      • jsbrendog

        hi, my name is something you don’t know (well Joe does) and i completely, totally, utterly, unequivocably endorse this comment with every fiber of my being.

      • Mr. Hand

        Joe…this is the correct use of the phrase “FUCK YOU”…kudos to you. its often over used or used in the wrong situations, but you nailed here…NAILED IT!

  • Laurie

    I was at the game and there were no crickets heard from my seat. It was a great game to watch because it featured everything and everyone. The play of the game was Tex’s to end the 7th, holding the lead. It was great to see his defense in person. Since I live 1800 miles from NY, I haven’t seen the team in four years and the only players left are Jeter, Cano, Posado, Mo and A-Rod who of course wasn’t there. It truly is amazing how many fans travel to watch the Yankees.

  • mike

    Few things:

    IIRC, Duqe was actually not feeling well against the Mets in 2000 with the flu or something, and still pitched great

    Also, I remember how Jeter et al were joking about Duqe in the 2009 pre-season, how he was so dominant he would lay over a pitch and allow the guy to get on base so he could practice pitching from the stretch…and how the fielders would call him on it, and he would give that big silly smile.

    For that first year ( mid 2008-09) he was amazing and dominant, but IMO he was allowed to pitch too many innings, and his arm/shoulder couldn’t handle it…he needed to be handled with care, but he was so good it was hard to lay off the gas..

    • Jim S

      Think you meant 98-99?

      • mike

        thanks Jim – I suppose I dont want to admit it’s that long ago :)

        • Jim S

          I know! 12 years? Wtf?

          • Micah

            Typos typos typos

        • Micah

          Typos typos typos!!

  • Simon B.

    It’s taken me a long time to notice, but what happened to Ben? He’s only posted once this month, and only a handful of times in July. Not that I’m complaining, mind you—just curious.

    Joe has slowed down a bit as well.

    • Mr. Hand

      my guess is his spelling, grammar and usage was too good for this site and he had to find a better place to blog.

      • jsbrendog

        icwudt

  • duzzi23

    I was born in 89 and grew up threw the dynasty years. El Duque was always one of my favorite players. I remember watching his first start with my late grandpa. He always showed up in big games and was a big part of the Yankees late 90s success. Also that commercial with David Cone going to the club and everyone was dancing like el duques motion was hysterical.

  • Ivan

    El Duque was certainly one of the more fun pitchers to watch I have ever witness. One of many reasons why that era of 96-01 was so special growing up. Congradulations for the memories.

    By the way, you guys gotta post that classic commercial with people doing the El Duque in the NY club and David Cone was trying to make up his own dance in the bathroom but failed miserably lol…good times indeed.

    • Jim S

      I can’t tell if you’re serious…

      The video is in the post.

      • Ivan

        Oops fail.

    • John

      “Hey Coney, why don you hava Dance????”

  • http://unclemikesmusings.blogspot.com Uncle Mike

    I miss Duque less when a Yankee starter pitches well, but I still miss him. He was a frequently great pitcher with a great personality, and he enlivened the sport. There aren’t many like him (that phrase “most unique” bothers me, but he WAS one of the most unusual), but a couple of more like him would help the game as a whole.

    • Jim S

      This is why I enjoyed(can enjoy again!) Dontrelle Willis. The crazy wind-up and gregarious personalities are few and far between.

  • Lazy Bones Andruw Jones

    One of my favorite players! My guess is that he was closer to 38 than 28 when the Yankees signed him. One can only wonder what kind of career he would have had if he was in MLB in his prime…

    • Kosmo

      I always thought the same. El Duque was 126-47 pitching in Cuba .I wondered how a 23 year old El Duque instead of a 33 yr old El Duque would have faired.

  • rek4gehrig

    Awwww…..he was my favorite favorite

  • vin

    Here here.

    El Duque was fantastic to watch… and I can’t believe I’ve never seen that video before. Awesome.

  • Delaware – Ralph

    He hasn’t made an Old Timers Day appearance yet has he? He certainly deserves the ovation he will get when he finally does.

  • Opus

    He had his own dance. David Cone did not & Luis Sojo wanted to know why

  • Jorge

    One of the greats, regardless of how long it lasted. Also everything I wish his brother could have continued being. Watching Livan AND Duque gunsling it back then was awesome.

  • art vandelay

    i wish there was some video of those el duque memories on mlb.tv somewhere

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    No one can deny that El Duque was a big game or money pitcher as you may. He was always up to the task when the occasion called for it with the Yankees. I believe that he surfaced with the White Sox in 05 and helped them in relief thus gaining a fourth ring. I know he helped bury the Red Sox in the ALCS. Correct me if I am mistaking.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

      ALDS. Struck out Johnny Damon with the bases loaded.

      (Should of brought him in instead of Vazquez in 2004…)

  • .zip file

    Duque really knew what he was doing on the mound. He just knew how to pitch.

  • Cuso

    “Seven one-run innings in Game Two against the Padres in the World Series followed, as did his first ring.”

    …Seven innings of one-run ball sounds better.

  • Cuso

    And you can’t forget to mention his constant run-ins with Posada every time Jorge went out to the mound to discuss (read: disagree) with Duque.

  • http://Facebook.com/andrewjcalagna Drew

    Didn’t El Duque win a WS with the White Sox in 2005?

    • http://twitter.com/urbainshockcor Urban

      Yes, although I think he was in the pen at that point, but he was very effective for them in the postseason. He is one of those players that most fans have more faith in coming through in a big game. Probably because of what he came through, pitching in the Majors was not pressure. What was his line when asked why he didn’t seem to be bothered by big-game situations, something like, “I pitch, no one dies.”

  • YanksFor28

    Is sad, El Duque was one of my favorite players growing up. I saw him pitch for the “Industriales” in Cuba long before he came to the States in 1997. Very humble person, I saw him him once in Miami in a parking lot; I waved at him “Duque!!!”, he was very polite, he was pitching for the Mets back then. I believe he tried to make his comeback a couple of times but injuries always prevail, nothing wrong with his arm I think it was his footing.
    There is a documentary about all the troubles he went throught in Cuba, and why he decided to migrate. I suggest you watch it.

  • Jim L.

    El Duque isn’t the best speller, so I bet he was ok with the post.

    “Hey Coney, why don’t you have a dance”

  • Claudell

    Great writeup.

    Nothing but love for El Duque.

  • http://twitter.com/urbainshockcor Urban

    I’m glad to hear El Duque is retiring in honor of his 60th birthday.

    A couple random thoughts. Who knows how good El Duque would have been if he spent his career, and peak years in MLB. He might very well have been a HOFer considering his reputation and just what we saw for a brief few years. Second, watching players like El Duque and Ichiro, who are trained outside of the North American MLB system, reminds me that fans and the game overall has lost some personality with the homogenization of both pitching motions and batter stances. Overall it helps, but we’ve lost something on the high end. Guys like Marichal, Luis Tiant and even Jim Palmer would have been forced to change their styles. I’m not even sure if Rod Carew would have made it to the majors with his stance.

  • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

    To this day I wished El Duque started game 7 of the 2004 ALCS. Sure he was on 3 days rest, but on game 7 it’s Go Time. You have to have your best arms out there. Kevin Brown was a complete disaster. There was no way he should have started that game. Of course that’s easy to say now, but at the time I knew he’d fail. Also, same with Javy Vazquez. He should have never came out of the bullpen to face Johnny Damon with the bases loaded. We’ll never know what would have happened. I would expect a respectable start. Say 5, MAYBE 6 innings, two or three earned runs. Then hopefully the offense would perform, considering they wouldn’t be in a big hole like they really were in that game. We’ll never know. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. Oh btw. I’ll miss El Duque. He was always a personal favorite of mine. Him, Pettitte, and Moose were always my favorites and it’s too bad they’re all out of the league now.

  • Ed Pendleton, Esq

    El Duque was the best and most colorful pitcher since Satchel Paige.
    Man could he pitch. Remember that he saved the Yankees World Championship of 1998 againt the Inidans. He belongs in the Hall of Fame based upon his Cuban and Yankee career. Remember that in addition
    to three championship with the Yankees he also won a Ring with the
    White Sox. Good luck to El Duque, I hope that he becomes a pitching coach on some level. I watched every game that he pitched for the Yankees and the Mets. They don’t make pitchers like him and Satchel Pagie any more.

  • Tony

    He is not a Hall of fame because he arrived to MLB w/ 32 years old (maybe older)….How many pitchers in MLB history have had the debut w/ 32 years old and have won fourth WS rings (3 NY and 1 WS)? Just one, El Duque.

    How many pitchers have debuted w/ 32 years old in MLB and have had a postseason record of 9-3 and 2.55, or better? Just one, El Duque

    He was one of the best pichers for great games.