He stepped onto the small boat in the pre-dawn hours on Christmas Day of 1997, departing from the small Cuban city of Caibarién. He had no other choice. He was being punished for something his brother had done. The Cuban government was preventing him from doing the one thing he did better than almost everyone else on the planet, pitch a baseball. When his brother Livan Hernandez defected from Cuba in 1995 to play in the Major Leagues and eventually become the MVP of the 1997 World Series, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez had been a target of the Cuban government. He was interrogated by Cuban authorities, removed from the Cuban National Team, and barred from playing Cuban baseball altogether. It was a punishment for his brother’s crime against the state. That is why he left the island that day.
Hernandez and seven other refugees spent 10 hours floating in shark-infested waters before landing on an uninhabited island in the Bahamas. They spent four days living off shellfish and the little water they could find. They rationed the stale bread and Spam they had brought with them until they were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard. Hernandez eventually came to the United States and signed a four-year, $6.6 million contract with the New York Yankees. Orlando Hernandez pitched for 9 seasons in the Major Leagues, winning 4 World Series, and earning over $34 million.
Upon entering his first Major League clubhouse, El Duque was amazed at seeing the storehouse of equipment; cleats, gloves, bats, provided to all the players. He immediately thought of the Cuban national team players. “Why can't they have all that? They are also great players and great people. In Cuba, they give you one pair of spikes. You take what they give you, and that's that."
El Duque’s experiences living under and fleeing Communism has forged his outlook on baseball and on life. When asked why he doesn’t seem to get distracted while playing, he simply replied, "If the sharks didn't distract me, nothing that can happen on a baseball field will." He has also been quoted as saying, "Sometimes the hitter get a hit, sometimes I strike them out, but in neither case does anyone die."
El Duque didn’t come here for a guarantee. He came for the opportunity. He simply wanted his time up at bat, a chance to compete. No different than many people living under the iron fist of Communism.
El Duque and his brother Livan can be seen as the Jackie Robinsons of Cuban baseball. For 4 decades, Cubans had been banned from playing in the Major Leagues, not because of MLB, but because of Fidel Castro and Cuba had barred them. In recent years, Cuban players such as Aroldis Chapman, Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu have been allowed to play in the Major Leagues, and they owe a debt of gratitude to El Duque and his brother, Livan.
Orlando Hernandez’s unique perspective is also reflected in his view of America. On July 5, 2019, when asked about what his life would be like if he never left Cuba, he replied, “I think maybe no good. Free is the best thing in life. Yesterday, it’s a good day for the USA. I celebrated, too. Two hundred forty-three years after -- free country. It’s good. I love USA.”
In present day, many Americans look at America and see oppression. El Duque looks at America and sees freedom. He came to America for “la libertad.” He says, "freedom to travel, freedom to speak one's mind without fear of retribution." Things that we take for granted, people like Orlando Hernandez has risked his life for.
Right now, we have insurgents rioting in our streets, wanting to overthrow our system, trying to bring to America what Orlando Hernandez fled Cuba from when he came to America. The freedom that is the birthright of every American, blinds many citizens to the freedom they have, so they only see oppression. El Duque has an appreciation for America and the freedom it offers that only growing up outside America can produce.
These American insurgents have seen so much freedom that they have begun to see freedom itself as oppression. They fail to recognize and acknowledge their privilege, the privilege to be born in the United States of America. A privilege that billions of people of color living around the world would risk life and limb just for the mere chance to breath the freedom that we take so much for granted that we want to give it away.
These America see our freedom as oppression because freedom walks hand in hand with responsibility. And the personal and societal responsibility that accompanies freedom feels oppressive. They want to end the oppressive responsibility tied to freedom. These insurgents are calling for the end of meritocracy, accountability, individuality, delayed gratification which are all inexorably connected to personal responsibility.
Freedom without responsibility leads to anarchy. What do you get when you overthrow freedom? Does anarchy bring more freedom or less? The anarchist chop zone looked like a totalitarian state and not a libertarian utopia.
This is not to say that America is perfect, or there is no room for improvement, but we must acknowledge how dangerous it is to disrespect our country, burn our flag, call for revolution, to overthrow the beacon of freedom that the oppressed people around the world flock to.