As Arnaldo “El Duque” Hernández tells the story, Fidel Castro, Cuba’s number one fan, presented the idea to the Central Committee of the Communist party. This was years before El Duque’s third son, Liván, had fallen to his knees and shouted, “I love you, Miami!” (in English, no less) after winning the 1997 World Series, and before his second son, Orlando, had gone on 60 Minutes and referred to Fidel as “the Devil.” El Duque said he heard the story from a high-ranking member of the National Assembly. “Let’s find an island to give to El Duque,” the Maximum Leader had proposed. “And some women, too. We’ll get him twenty big mulatas, two cases of beer and a bottle of rum, and he can create pitching for the future.” The original El Duque loved that story, even if it may have been told to him in jest. “It’s true,” he told me. “I make pitchers.”
No one was particularly surprised that El Duque had arrived late for Arnaldo’s funeral. Ever since the breakup with María Julia, he had been a sporadic presence in his sons’ lives. Arnaldo “El Duque” Hernández was many things. He was a bon vivant and a rake, the life of the party wherever he happened to land. In his time, he had been a serious baseball talent. As some have described him, he was a poor man’s Martín Dihigo, El Inmortal, one of two Cubans to make the American Baseball Hall of Fame (Tony Pérez is the other). Like Dihigo, El Duque had played every position at one time or another; primarily he pitched. And although he stood no taller than five-foot-nine, and was much slighter than his sons, he was utterly fearless. His pitching philosophy was relatively simple: “Fastball to the head, other pitches to the zone.”
But El Duque had not been the most responsible of men. He had fathered six children—four boys and two girls—with four different women in four different cities. He lived the life of a transient, skipping town every few months or so, often without warning. At any given time his own family (or families) had no idea where he was. His arrivals were equally unpredictable. He would show up without so much as a phone call, often bearing little more than a suitcase and a smile as big as the Hotel Habana Libre. Then he would stay for months. It was difficult to stay angry with him for very long, though; he was a kind of rogue innocent. “There are some people who just want to
be too alive,” Miñosito explained one day. He said that the day his sister María Julia broke up with El Duque was one of the happiest of his life. “But he’s not a bad guy,” he added. “He’s just a little unstable. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t want to confront the situations of real life.”
He is also not a particularly easy man to locate. At the time that this book was being prepared,
there were rumored sightings of El Duque in the Marianao district of Havana, in the central city
of Santa Clara, on the Isle of Youth and in the agricultural city of Las Tunas on the other side
of the island. Calls were placed to each location, phone numbers were exchanged, but no one seemed to have seen him. “You’d have about as much chance of tracking down Fidel,” one family friend advised me. After several unsuccessful leads, a call was placed to his son Orlando, who
was training with the Yankees in Tampa. He laughed. “Go look for him in the mountains!” he roared. He hadn’t the slightest clue where his father was. A decision was finally made to follow the consensus opinion, which was that El Duque was probably in Las Tunas, where he kept a home.
The plane, a Soviet-made Ilyushin that resembled a blimp with wings, touched down in Las Tunas in the middle of a blinding afternoon. The doors swung open, and blast-furnace heat rushed into the cabin. It was like landing on the sun. At the front of the airport, a squat terminal planted in the middle of a field, horse-drawn carriages and bicycle taxis were lined up ten deep. There were a few automobile taxis, and it was one of those that led the search for El Duque. The first stop, logically, was the baseball stadium, but the Las Tunas nine was away that afternoon. Someone suggested checking the local branch of the Sports Ministry. Raúl, our helpful driver, pulled up and walked inside. He came out with a friendly local official. “My son will know where he lives,” the man said, climbing into the car. Five minutes later we pulled up at his son’s house. He, too, got in. By the time the taxi turned down a gravel lane and eased beside the modest two-story house, we were a full-blown delegation.
A striking teenage boy, about five-foot-ten, met us at the front door. The sports official took charge.
“Is Duque home?”
The boy invited us to wait in a small living room and then disappeared into the back. There was a portrait of Jesus on one wall, and someone had placed a Barbie on top of a sixteen-inch color television. There was nothing to suggest that the father of two major-league pitchers lived here. In particular, there were no photos of Orlando or Liván. Someone asked the sports official if the strapping youngster at the door was another of El Duque’s sons. He said he was, but he didn’t play baseball. His two brothers had already defected, he explained, and the government had decided that it wasn’t about to groom another traitor for the major leagues. He said the kid was playing field hockey, instead.
It was then that Arnaldo “El Duque” Hernández emerged, blinking and smiling and puffing on an unfiltered Aroma cigarette, the harshest brand in Cuba. He was wearing a weathered T-shirt, white cutoff shorts and flip-flops. I introduced myself and extended my hand. Instead of shaking it, El Duque embraced me like a long-lost relative. He was elated to see everyone else as well: the sports official, his son, Raúl the cabdriver. All of us were greeted like family. Then El Duque turned to the boy.
“Did you meet Marlon?” he asked. I said that indeed I had, adding that he looked like an athlete. El Duque then dispelled the notion that the Cuban government could prevent his fourth son from becoming a major-league ballplayer.
“This one,” El Duque said proudly, “this one is for the Cleveland Indians.”
From The Duke of Havana by Steve Fainaru and Ray Sánchez.
Copyright © 2001 by Steve Fainaru and Ray Sánchez. Reprinted with permission.