Wednesday, December 23, 2015
WHO WILL BE THE NEXT GREAT YANKEE FROM CUBA?
With the United States and Cuba re-establishing diplomatic relations over the past year, MLB is beginning to embrace the opportunity to tap into talent that, in the past, had only been available via dangerous boat-rides across the volatile waters between Cuba and Florida. Players who successfully made it to the States, could never return home, and more often than not, failed to fulfill their dreams.
Over the past week, a group of players and representatives from MLB spent three days in Cuba as part of the effort to open up the prospects to “bigger” things for the sport in that country. As Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported:
"MLB has applied to the U.S. government for the right to do business in Cuba. A regular-season series, which has not happened since the revolution in 1959 and the U.S. embargo that followed, is also being discussed. “Pie in the sky,” said Hall of Famer Joe Torre, the commissioner’s office ambassador on the trip, is that baseball helps improve diplomatic relations.
The largest advancement that both sides believe they can make is how players get from Cuba to the majors, a system that now involves the murky, dangerous waters of human trafficking."
So, with the improving relations in the sport between the two countries, teams like the Yankees will eventually establish a regular scouting network for the area that ultimately feeds talent into the club’s system. Historically, the Bombers haven’t had many rags-to-riches stories from Cuba, but for me there is one that comes to mind: Orlando Hernandez – “El Duque”.
Without going into all of the details of his journey, Hernandez was one of the defectors from Cuba who did make the harrowing trip to freedom in a boat. After a wildly successful amateur career (in Cuba), as a free man he signed with the Yankees at the age of 32, and became an integral part of the team’s greatest season in 1998, as well as the subsequent championship seasons in ’99 and 2000.
Over six seasons with the Yankees, El Duque posted a 61 – 40 record with a 3.93 ERA. Many would point out that those aren’t truly “special” stats, and honestly, he offered up many home runs to opponents (including 34 round-trippers in 2000). In fact, during his time in the Bronx, his ERA was lower than 3.50 just twice and he won more than 12 games just once – in 1999 (he won 17). Yet, I consider him one of the most important Yankee pitchers – alongside the likes of Pettitte, Clemens, Cone, Rivera etc. – for that run of trips to the World Series between ’98 and 2001.
The great ones all have a certain characteristic. The “Core Four” all had it. Jeter had it. Pettitte had it. Rivera certainly had it. “It” is that unteachable ability to raise the level of your play when the stakes are higher. For any team to win a championship, it has to have players with that makeup.
Orlando Hernandez was such a player. In 15 post-season series over the course of his career, his record is 9 – 3, with a 2.20 ERA. In virtually every category, El Duque was dramatically better in the post-season. I know, as a fan, whenever I saw that he was starting a game in October my confidence level in the Yankees jumped. I’m sure it did for his teammates too. I always thought that his accuracy and velocity seemed to reach different levels in the playoffs and World Series.
The numbers back those thoughts – though, I really didn’t have to refer to the numbers to know that. All I had to do was watch. It was clear that El Duque could pull from deep within himself to carry the team when it needed him most. I’ll always consider him to be one of the foundations the “Core Four” built itself upon. He made it easier for them to succeed – he had their backs.
Hopefully, the Yankees can find another El Duque that up-and-coming stars like Greg Bird, Slade Heathcott, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Judge, and Luis Severino can have to cover their backs as they one day march to a title. It would appear that Major League Baseball is going to make it easier for them to do so.
--Steve Skinner, BYB Senior Writer
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