In an effort to avoid being bested by their pal Leela, Tony and Bernie (the lovable twins from Mike DeNero’s Neighborhood) allow me to present Tony and Bernie’s “Big Apple” Stash. As the lads are twins, and are usually forced to share, why stop at toys, snacks, and sportscards? They will also take turns authoring this column, a monthly ode to their favorite vintage sportscards picturing New York legends. This month, Tony takes a stab at waxing poetic about one of his all-time favorite players. Unlike Bernie, Tony’s spelling skills are well honed, especially for a 5-year-old. Enjoy!
My Man, El Duque
"El Duque" was the quintessential Yankee - at least that's what my daddy tells me. My daddy says that never has a more dynamic, entertaining, gutsy, and effective pitcher donned the Pinstripes than #26. Whether it be due to his unique pitching motion (or rather, pitching motions), his hop-and-a-skip over the foul line on his way to the dugout after closing out an inning, or his sheer dominance in the postseason, El Duque will live in the hearts of Yankees fans (like me and my daddy) forever.
I really like his 1999 Topps baseball card because the picture captures El Duque in all his regalia - high leg kick, ready to hurl a devastatingly deceptive, not to mention effective, pitch at a helpless batter who was cruelly given nothing but a 34 ounce piece of lumber with which to attempt to hit it. Poor batter!
Yep, El Duque was one in a billion - a showman with a flair for the dramatic that was only surpassed by his ability and heart. Because of his uncanny ability to make the art of pitching appear to be an effortless task, it is easy to overlook the fact that El Duque's journey from Cuba to the Yankee Stadium pitcher's mound was wrought with terror and uncertainty.
El Duque was Cuba's greatest pitcher - but sadly, his career was cut short after the Cuban government blacklisted him from baseball after his half-brother, Livan, defected to the United States. Finding himself working at a local mental hospital with no possibility of playing baseball again, El Duque escaped from Cuba with his wife on Christmas Day 1997. Their journey to freedom came courtesy of a small boat that landed them in Anguilla Cay, and uninhabited island in the Bahamas. They were rescued three days later.
Fast-forward thirteen years, and El Duque, who is now somewhere between 41 and 50 years old, has not pitched in a Major League game since 2007. However, don't bet that he won't return to the big leagues despite his age (whatever it may be) and injuries that plagued him over the past five years. A couple months ago, the Washington Nationals signed him to a minor league contract. He started in the GCL, the Gulf Coast League, and has moved up to the Nats' Double AA affiliate in Harrisburg, where he has (as of the date of this writing) pitched 8.1 innings in relief, struck out 11 batters, and has a cool 1.08 ERA.
Why would he toil in the depths of the minors at such an advanced age? He loves to play! As El Duque said recently to a reporter, "In Cuba, we had 14-hour bus rides with no air conditioning, no food, no music, no anything. This? This is nothing. This is fun. We get to play baseball in new shoes and clean uniforms."
I hope the Nats promote him in September -- I would love for my daddy to take me to the ballpark to see him pitch ... it would be pretty cool!