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Mike Wise

Like the Nats, Hernandez Takes Long Way to RFK

By Mike Wise
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page D12

En route to history, Livan Hernandez has fortunately opted to take the team bus.

"I got lost driving on the way to the stadium today," the Nationals' Opening Day starter said after the team's exhibition at RFK Stadium against the Mets. "D.C. has very difficult streets. I only came from downtown but it took way more than 20 minutes."

The most famous baseball player in the nation's capital leaned against his locker and smiled. He was holding court, kibitzing and laughing with his Spanish-speaking brethren. The way they listen, how they relate to him, it is clear their teammate represents more than merely a durable right-hander.

La cara del equipo -- the face of the team.

Sometime after 3 p.m. atop a mound in Philadelphia, a 30-year-old Cuban exile will throw Washington's first pitch in 34 years, proving that some journeys are longer and more challenging than others.

There is baseball returning to Washington, one of the more circuitous routes in the annals of American team sports. And there is also the long, arduous path of Hernandez. The man who will pitch the Nationals' first Opening Day pitched the Montreal Expos' last. He was the youngest player to win a World Series opener. Hernandez was only 22 when he led the Florida Marlins to the title in 1997. He was MVP of both the World Series and the National League Championship Series. A year after he defected from his home town, Villa Clara, Hernandez's mother got out of Cuba, arriving in Miami moments before Game 7.

That first season, you could not make up Livan Hernandez's tale: Another anti-Castro athlete leaves his home. Torn about leaving family, his determination helps him overcome the loss and the language barrier.

After less than a year in the minor leagues, Hernandez was brought up to the big club at the end of 1996. The next spring he wasn't merely fooling hitters; Hernandez was embarrassing the game's most feared sluggers, making them almost swing twice at a slow curveball. The pitch seemed to leave his hand in April and cross the plate in June.

But Hernandez went only 15-21 the next two seasons with the Marlins, who eventually traded him to San Francisco. He went 17-11 his first full season with the Giants before his reputation and his curve were drilled.

The next two seasons, Hernandez lost 31 games. In the 2002 World Series, Hernandez compiled a 14.29 ERA in two games. The Anaheim Angels scored 10 runs off Hernandez, beating him twice. Criticism carried over.

At 6 feet 2 and 245 pounds, he has the natural dumpy frame of a Rick Reuschel or a David Wells. When he was winning in South Florida, he was a big, jovial cutup in the clubhouse. When he was losing in San Francisco, Hernandez was viewed as heavy, lazy and showy.

"It was hard for me to be there, everybody saying things about me in the paper," he said. "I like to be relaxed, comfortable. When they trade me, that's how I felt."

The Expos did not give Hernandez the run support he needed the past two years, but his market value returned. In 15 of his 35 starts last season, he gave up two runs or less. He kept Montreal in 27 games, allowing four runs or less. Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Bartolo Colon are the three players besides Hernandez to start at least 30 games in each of the past seven seasons. Hernandez has thrown more complete games (22) since 2002 than any other major league pitcher.

He is the rare pitcher who can hit, too. Hernandez has driven in 55 runs and hit five home runs. He fields line shots up the middle, unlike most gawky, terrified pitchers. Hernandez may be Frank Robinson's best athlete.

"They say I'm lazy?" Hernandez said, shaking his head. "A lot of people want to play like Livan. I finish second for Gold Glove award, I won the Silver Slugger award last year. I want to be lazy like that."

Hernandez shrugged his shoulders. He was wearing a black leather jacket over a pink dress shirt, talking about how happy he is to be in Washington.

"I want to bring my dog up here, walk around, go shopping," he said. "I love to shop."

Livan loves to spend, too. He owns seven vehicles, including his favorite, a tricked-out Range Rover, and an Aston Martin sports car.

"How fast I go in the Aston Martin? I'm not going to tell you. I would get in trouble."

Several members of the Hernandez clan will be in attendance today, including his mother. Hernandez requested 15 tickets for the opener against the Phillies, which he desperately wants to win.

"That moment is going to be amazing," Hernandez said. "Everything go in the paper for real tomorrow."

He also wants to meet Freddy Adu, the 15-year-old soccer wunderkind with whom Hernandez shares a field. He misses his family in Cuba and believes one day he will be allowed to return and see them.

"The U.S. give me a chance," he said. "To be free, that was important to me. To take care of my family. And enjoy the American life. It's a beautiful life."

The baseball player who left Latin America behind for a better life. The halting English. The untold riches and fame.

The right-hander who will throw out Washington's first pitch in 34 years is not from Cuba as much as he is central casting.

He has a little Chico Escuela in him -- the character portrayed by Garrett Morris in the old "Saturday Night Live" reruns. You don't even have to mention Chico's signature line. The face of the Nationals does it for you.

"People say, 'Baseball been very, very good to me,' " Livan Hernandez said. "I like this saying."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company