HAVANA TIMES — If someone were to say to me that “El Duque” was a gentleman on and off the field, I’d have to agree with them. What’s more, I have an anecdote that confirms this.
In 1993 — when I was 14, during one of the harshest years of the Special Period crisis — I went to the Latin American Stadium to see my favorite baseball team, Havana’s “Industriales.” The idols back then were German Mesa, Javier Mendez, Juan Padilla, Lazaro Vargas, Lazaro Valle and, of course, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez.
That was a time when there were two things that no longer exist, at least not as markedly: super stars who packed the stadiums and an almost total lack of transportation.
From our outlying Alamar neighborhood, my friends and I used a combination of two buses to get to the stadium. The first was an old double-humped “camel,” which took us along the M-1 route, and the second was the route 265 bus.
In both cases, like almost always, we were forced to ride squeezed up against the doors. At that time it was commonplace to see packed buses go by veritably busting at the welds.
The spirit of being “hard-nosed,” as we called this form of travel, had a lot to do with our ages. We risked our lives every day and we didn’t even know it.
When leaving the stadium, we’d often see our baseball heroes, and sometimes they’d shake our hands. It was a spiritual balm that made up for such an expenditure of energy, especially since there was never anything to eat at the stadium – and sometimes not even anything at home.
One Sunday when we were going home, bracing ourselves to deal with the 265, we saw “El Duque.” He had won the game that afternoon and was waiting quietly at the bus stop – but we went nuts.
We called to him from between our doors, with all the other people crammed up against us. He saw us, stretching our hands out to him through the crack. And then, in a gesture I’ll never forget, his eyebrows raised and with a wide smile he said: “Be careful there!” pointing to the risk we were running.