October 13, 1997 in Sports

Lonely Cuban Calms Leyland’s Furrowed Brow

Bob Ford Philadelphia Inquirer

Livan Hernandez does not know if his family was able to watch him pitch Sunday. Perhaps if the phone lines are working and the right connection is made, he will be able to ask them.

The other Florida Marlins celebrated their enormous win in the concrete hallways beneath Pro Player Stadium with hugs for their parents, wives and children.

As always, there was no one waiting for Hernandez.

“I miss good Cuban food,” Hernandez said through an interpreter, “but I miss my family more than anything.”

Hernandez defected to the United States in 1995, walking away from the Cuban national team and, soon after, signing a free-agent contract with the Marlins. The Atlanta Braves were also bidding to sign him, but, like Sunday, came in second place. “It was very close,” Hernandez said.

That would describe the National League championship series, which returns to Atlanta for a sixth game Tuesday with Florida in position to clinch the pennant.

That position was made possible by Hernandez, who was rushed into the Florida rotation when Kevin Brown was once again unable to pitch because of a stomach virus.

Hernandez, a rookie who won nine straight games in one stretch this season, had been sent to the bullpen by manager Jim Leyland. After Sunday, that makes you wonder just how much of a genius Leyland is after all.

Leyland didn’t have a very good feeling before the game. He was throwing a 22-year-old rookie against Greg Maddux. If his team lost, he was staring at a three-games-to-two deficit going back to Atlanta and dates with Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. And, worse yet, the wind was blowing hard out to right field, a jet stream for Atlanta’s string of lefthanded hitters.

“I was absolutely paranoid about it,” Leyland said. “I said, ‘Man, everything’s going wrong.”’ That was before Hernandez pitched the first complete game of his two-year career in the Florida organization. He gave up just three hits and struck out 15, tying the league championship strikeout record set just the day before by Mike Mussina.

“But he didn’t finish the game,” Hernandez said of Mussina.

It wasn’t an easy set of adjustments for Hernandez in this country. He put on 30 pounds eating every meal at fast food restaurants and spent his signing bonus on a series of cars. Hernandez still has three cars - a Ferrari, a Mercedes and a truck - but he traded in the extra weight.

“This year, now that he knows what it takes, he’s been very committed,” said teammate Jeff Conine.

There might be a dozen players stuck on the island who could make the sort of splash that Livan Hernandez made Sunday. Whatever the talent level, however, after years of making do on pitted fields and under dim lights, getting to this country makes the game a lot easier.

“One thing you don’t have to do,” said Gary Hughes, the Florida player personnel director who helped sign Hernandez, “is question their toughness. They have to be tough.”

Hernandez was not only tough Sunday, but smart enough to adjust to Eric Gregg’s generous strike zone. Maddux adjusted, too, and nearly pitched as well as his young counterpart.

If Florida wins the series, it won’t be because Gregg missed a few pitches, but because Atlanta failed on its few opportunities to scratch out runs against Hernandez. Kenny Lofton started the game with a triple, but was left on third when Hernandez struck out Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff and Ryan Klesko to open his symphony with a dramatic fanfare.

Maddux, losing for the second time in the series, hit a batter who eventually scored in the first. In the seventh, he let Bobby Bonilla crash a ball so hard to right field that Michael Tucker lost the ball and a contact lens when he hit the wall.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email