(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on June 10, 1998)
Call it nationalistic pride, or an overly emotional sense of patriotism or just an obsession with my homeland — I don't care.
All I know is I was proud to be there, feeling goose bumps all over my body, on the night Cuban history was made at Yankee Stadium.
I was out by the concession stands, waiting in line to buy coffee, when announcer Bob Sheppard read the lineups for last Wednesday's Yankee game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But I ran out to the grandstands just in time to catch the historic moment.
"And pitching for the Yankees," Sheppard boomed. "El Duque, Orlando Hernández."
I wanted to shout, but somehow I couldn't. There were no words to describe the exuberance that rushed through me. And so I just stood there, while some of my countrymen waved Cuban flags, watching a symbol of Cuban bravery and willpower realizing an impossible dream.
In retrospect, the appropriate word for me to shout would have been "Libertad" or "Freedom," although few of the other baseball fans would have understood. They shouted "El Duque" and that was good enough for me.
Maybe they didn't realize it, but they recognized a symbol of Cuba's unrealized potential, the power of the human struggle for freedom, the triumph of democracy over communism.
For me, as for most Cuban-Americans, this was much more than a baseball game.
It was vindication.
Earlier that evening, before heading out to the stadium, a friend had questioned my excitement for going to see El Duque's debut as a Yankee.
"Why are you so nationalistic?" I was asked. "You get too emotional." Ironically, this was someone who should recognize that ethnic, racial, and nationalistic pride have always been prevalent in sports.
I could have given him a speech, naming the many "Italian stallions" who have made their people proud, or the pioneers like Jackie Robinson who opened doors for others, or the frenzy evoked among Irish and Italian Americans during the World Cup. But I didn't have time to argue. I rushed off to Yankee Stadium, where history was about to unfold.
After all, only seven months ago, as his half-brother Livan Hernandez was earning $4.5 million and being crowned as the World Series' Most Valuable Player, El Duque was back in Cuba earning 206 pesos a month — about $10 — as a physical therapist.
Livan had defected from the Cuban national team while playing in Mexico a couple of years earlier. And while he was leading the Florida Marlins to a championship, Orlando was banned from Cuban baseball just because the government suspected he wanted to defect.
For Cuban-Americans, I could have told my friend, this was much more than the typical nationalistic angle often exploited in sports writing. It was a victory over the Fidel Castro regime. A child of Castro's revolution, brought up listening to rhetoric about "Yankee imperialism," was beginning to earn the $6.6 million he got for becoming a New York Yankee.
When El Duque, his wife, and six others escaped from Castro's hellhole and drifted in the Florida Straits for several days toward the Bahamas on a flimsy 19-foot sailboat last Christmas, I knew he was bound for greatness. He had been star pitcher on Cuba's national team, and his journey to freedom confirmed he could withstand major league pressure.
When he pitched the Yankees to an impressive 7-1 victory over the Devil Rays on Wednesday, demonstrating tremendous poise and pitching control, even Yankee manager Joe Torre recognized that compared with his gutsy journey to freedom, El Duque's Yankee pitching debut was "a piece of cake."
But no one in the stadium could appreciate El Duque's journey to freedom and dream-fulfilling debut more than a star pitcher on the opposing team. Almost two years ago, Devil Rays pitcher Rolando Arrojo also defected from Cuba.
Instead of discussing El Duque's sterling seven-inning, one-run, five-hit, seven-strikeout, and two-walk performance, Arrojo wanted to talk about a greater accomplishment. "It's the most precious thing he ever accomplished," Arrojo said of his friend and former teammate. "To be free of Cuba."
Although Arrojo defected while his team was visiting the United States, later he suffered the agony of waiting for his wife and two children when they escaped from Cuba on a boat.
They landed in Florida and were lucky to be able to stay. Hundreds of other Cubans who flee the island on small boats and rafts, including six of El Duque's boat companions, were sent back to Cuba — to face untold punishment — under a repatriation agreement between the Bahamian government and the Castro regime.
Cubans repatriated and lost or drowned at sea don't usually get much media attention. But El Duque and his wife were saved by his brother's notoriety — the kind that Arrojo is getting this year. Although his team lost a game while he sat on the bench, Arrojo, one of the best pitchers in baseball this year, seemed to be more driven by nationalism than team spirit.
"He needs to keep advancing, like me," Arrojo said of El Duque, "in the name of those who were left behind in the middle of the ocean."
No one knows how long El Duque will pitch for the Yankees. He could return to the minors. He got to pitch last Wednesday and again, superbly, last night, because other starters were injured. He may have to wait for another injury to get another shot. But when he does, I'll be at the stadium.
Yankee fans will be shouting "El Duque." But I intend to start a new chorus for "Libertad."