Livan Hernandez looks to the future
Workhorse pitcher considers possibility of returning to Cuba
Each autumn, after a season full of pitching, Livan Hernandez looks around his team's clubhouse and watches teammates assembling their belongings for the trip home, players headed for points east and west, north and south, some to play winter ball, some to just spend the offseason with friends and family.
Hernandez likes to think that some day that will be him, one day packing to travel home to Cuba.
"It is difficult for me sometimes," said Hernandez, now in his 14th Major League season, pitching this year for the New York Mets. "I see others go home. They don't know how I feel. Everybody wants to go home. It's my country."
Hernandez's situation is complicated. He defected from his country's national team in Mexico during Spring Training in 1995, a teenager turning his back on his homeland for an opportunity at freedom.
"It was scary," he said quietly.
Within two years, Hernandez was a key figure in the '97 Florida Marlins' stunning run to the World Series championship. Called up in midseason, he went 9-3 and then won two games in the National League Championship Series including a complete-game, 15-strikeout masterpiece to beat Atlanta.
He followed that up by winning two more games in the World Series. At 22, he became the youngest pitcher ever to win a World Series opener and swept the MVP awards for both the pennant playoff and World Series. The only other player to post that unique double was Willie Stargell in 1979.
Hernandez was on top of the world in Miami, honored a Grand Marshal for the 1997 Orange Bowl parade. But he would pitch only one more full season for the Marlins before starting a vagabond tour of the Major Leagues that included stops at San Francisco, Montreal, Washington, Arizona, Minnesota, Colorado and finally New York, where his half-brother, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, had pitched before him.
With all the moves, there have been some constants for Hernandez. He is an innings-eater, routinely logging 200 innings every season. Except for 1999, when he missed the target by one-third of an inning, Hernandez logged 200 innings every year from 1998 through 2007.
"I always try to pitch a lot of innings," he said. "I try to pitch 200 every year. That's my goal every year. I save bullpens."
Of players with at least 12 years in the Major Leagues, only Brad Ausmus, Derek Lowe and Hernandez have never been on the disabled list.
"I am never hurt," Hernandez said. "I never miss a start. Every five days, I am there. Just give me the ball."
That history of consistency led the Mets to invite Hernandez to Spring Training with a Minor League contract in February to compete with Freddy Garcia and Tim Redding for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. It quickly became clear that Hernandez would win that battle, and he was plugged into the rotation at the start of the season. His third win for the Mets -- on May 10 against Pittsburgh -- was the 150th of his career.
All those years, all those innings have taught Hernandez some important lessons about pitching.
"It's about location," he said. "If you know that, know how to pitch, you will get people out."
He is 34 now and wants to pitch for six more years.
"Look at [Philadelphia's] Jamie Moyer," he said. "He's 46. He's still pitching. Every time I see him pitch, I know I can pitch until 40."
After that, he will examine his options. He's encouraged by the apparent efforts of the new Obama administration to reach out to Cuba. Restrictions on travel between the countries have already been loosened. Hernandez has noticed.
"It is open for some people," he said. "Not for me."
Then his voice dropped, a touch of sadness in it.
"One day I will go back," he said. "One day."
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.