Former Yankee, Met pitcher signs autographs for adoring fans

The temperature was rapidly approaching 90 degrees last Saturday morning and the line outside the Modell’s Sporting Goods store on Passaic Avenue was already wrapping itself around the back of the complex, with 300 or so people of all ages standing and waiting on line.

But nothing was going to dissuade 73-year-old Osvaldo Garcia of Kearny from being there. Standing on line with his daughter Marisol, Garcia had a walking cane in hand as he patiently waited with the others.

You see, Garcia is a refugee from Cuba _ much like the person the people were all waiting for, namely Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, the former New York Yankee and New York Mets pitcher who won three World Series championships with the Yankees.

More than 50 years ago, Garcia fled Cuba in search of freedom and a new life in the United States.

“I spent three days in the water with nine other people,” Garcia explained. “A boat came by and picked us up.”

Garcia, who is an avid Yankee fan, wanted to make sure that he got a chance to meet “El Duque,” who had a similar story of his escape from Cuba on Christmas Day, 1997.

Hernandez also fled from Cuba in a raft with seven others and spent a few days on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean before being rescued by the United States Coast Guard.

While playing pro baseball in Cuba, Hernandez earned a reputation of being a big-time winning pitcher, posting a career record of 126-47 over 10 seasons and a 3.05 earned run average, earning the highest winning percentage in Cuban baseball history.

Hernandez was also a key member of the Cuban national team that won the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

After fleeing Cuba, Hernandez was all set to be shipped back to his native land where he would have been treated like a criminal. But then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno stepped in and offered Hernandez and the companions on the boat special visa status or “humanitarian parole,” because it was believed that Hernandez would have been persecuted in Cuba.

However, Hernandez declined Reno’s offer and gained political asylum in Costa Rica, where he remained for two months before signing with the Yankees in the spring of 1998.

Hernandez has remained in the United States since signing the four-year, $6.6 million contract with the Yankees in 1998, helping the Bronx Bombers win the first of their three straight World Series titles. Hernandez was 12-4 as a rookie in 1998. A year later, Hernandez was 17-9 for the Yankees as they won the World Series title again, with “El Duque” winning the Most Valuable Player of the American League Championship Series.

“El Duque” won 12 games for the Yankees in 2000, helping the Yankees to their Subway Series championship over the Mets. In the postseason with the Yankees, “El Duque” had an 8-1 record with a 2.23 earned run average, continuing that reputation of being a big-game hurler.

Hernandez concluded his 10-year Major League Baseball career in 2007 after two seasons with the Mets, winning nine games each season and helping the Mets to the National League Eastern Division championship in 2006. He had a 90-65 record in the big leagues.

So Garcia didn’t mind waiting on line to get the chance to talk to “El Duque.”

“I want to talk to him,” Garcia said. “I want to tell him my story.”

Marisol Garcia was the one who suggested the visit to her father.

“I heard it on the radio and said, ‘Dad, El Duque is coming to Kearny,’” Marisol Garcia said. “I said, ‘Let’s go.’ It’s awesome that he’s here. He’s going to be the first Yankee I ever had a chance to meet. The fact that I’m here with my Dad is pretty cool. They share the idea that they were once in a boat to get here.”

The Garcias did get a chance to meet and greet “El Duque,” who was appearing to help local residents who have been without Yankee baseball on YES due to the network’s dispute with Comcast to realize they can see the Yankees on DirectTV. Several of the people on line to see “El Duque” also signed up for DirectTV service to watch the Yankees on TV again.

Fred Sawaged was on line with his teenage daughter Katelyn, who is a softball player in their native Kearny.

“Oh, yeah, I was excited about it,” Sawaged said. “This doesn’t happen much in Kearny, getting to meet a player like ‘El Duque’ from those great Yankee teams. It’s good to see someone like him here like this.”

Katelyn Sawaged agreed, even though she never saw Hernandez pitch.

“I saw this in the paper and I knew we had to be here,” Katelyn Sawaged said. “It’s very exciting.”

Katelyn said that she will watch videos of Hernandez and his funky delivery and distinctive leg kick.

“I will watch that now on YouTube,” Katelyn said.

“I did my best to try to show her,” Fred said.

Kimberly Tromans of Kearny was on line with her 10-year-old son Gabriel Castillo, an aspiring baseball player and pitcher.

“I’ve heard of him,” Castillo said. “I knew he was a good pitcher. I have been told that I have a very similar pitching style.”

“He’s a huge fan,” Tromans said of her son. “For him to meet someone who played in the major leagues is a very big deal. It’s exciting for me, too.”

Kearny resident Juan Gonzalez _ no, not the former Texas Rangers superstar _ was on line with his 8-year-old daughter Juliana and 3-year-old daughter Victoria.

“I was born and raised in the Bronx, so I have to be a Yankee fan,” said Gonzalez, who said he also rooted for the Texas Rangers when his namesake was a player. “If ‘El Duque’ is going to be here, then I have to take advantage of it.”

Gonzalez said that he showed his older daughter videos of Hernandez pitching.

“I wanted to keep her in the loop so she knows who he is,” Gonzalez said. “I’m a big fan of his. Anytime you get a chance to meet a player in your hometown, especially a Yankee, then you have to go.”

Jimmy Tufano is a Nutley resident who has his own man cave.

“My friends call it the ‘Tufano Museum,’” Tufano said of his memorabilia room. “I love collecting, but my wife is ready to throw me out of the house.”

Tufano had a 1999 World Series baseball that he wanted “El Duque” to sign.

“He had a remarkable postseason career,” Tufano said. “It’s a great honor to meet someone from that team. I was pleasantly surprised with how good he became with the Yankees.”

Tufano said that he heard about the promotion on the radio.

“I had to be here,” Tufano said.

So did a lot of others as well.

Hernandez declined the request to be interviewed for the story.

Learn more about the writer ...

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”