VIERA, Fla., Feb. 18 -- He arrived just as his teammates would expect, striding across the freshly cut grass wearing baggy gray pants, an oversized red warmup shirt, an ear-to-ear smile. Livan Hernandez was a day late for the Washington Nationals' workouts, but no one around him allowed even an inkling of annoyance when he ambled in Friday morning. Hernandez's importance to the team is clear, for he is the ace. And his mission, beyond eating innings like they were plates of plantains from his native Cuba, is even simpler to define.
"You need to have fun," Hernandez said. "You need laughing."
Livan Hernandez, who led the NL in innings and complete games the last two years, greets assistant general manager Tony Siegle on his first day at Nationals training camp.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
There have been times, of course, when smiles and laughter have been precious commodities around this franchise, which faced a perilous future the past three years in Montreal before finally moving to Washington. But ever since Hernandez arrived during spring training two years ago, he has laughed and joked his way into the hearts of the teammates and coaches who now seem to back him up, no matter what he does.
"I told him, after we got him, that I didn't know him, but I'd heard bad things about him," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "Lazy. Dog. Showman. But after his first year, I saw everything different. He was incredible. I told him, 'You've been absolutely none of that.' "
It has been so long since Hernandez's story first hit the shores of Florida that he almost seems like a different character now. Sitting in the first base dugout at Space Coast Stadium on Friday afternoon, his first workout of the spring behind him, he spoke in somewhat broken but clearly understandable English, something that would have been unheard of when he defected from Cuba in 1995, a courageous but scared teenager.
Now, he has an air about him, one that comes from having been a World Series MVP in 1997 with the Florida Marlins, one that comes from being forced to improve his English when he was traded to San Francisco in 1999, one that comes from taking the ball, throwing deep into game after game, and returning to do it again five days later.
"When he takes the ball, his mind-set is: When the game's over, that's when his job is finished," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "He doesn't go out there saying, 'Well, if I give the club seven good innings, I've done my job.' Even when I go out to get the ball in the eighth or ninth inning from him, he doesn't want to give it up."
The results of that approach, though far from flawless, must be enough to build the Nationals' fragile staff around. Hernandez led the National League in both innings pitched and complete games in each of the past two seasons, during which he went 26-25 with a 3.41 ERA. Robinson said this week that, barring injury, Hernandez is his Opening Day starter, the man who will throw the first pitch in Nationals' history -- just another step in distancing himself from his boyhood in Castro's Cuba.
"I can't go back to Cuba," Hernandez said. "Fidel is there. I think it's not a good idea. He wants to see me with the Washington Nationals?"
Not likely. Hernandez was one of those prized Cuban baseball prodigies who decided to leave his home country, to leave his family, in search of the gold-bricked streets of America. In those first months after he signed with the Marlins, things were difficult. He began his professional career in Charlotte, but quickly moved to Portland, Maine. If there are more polar opposites than Villa Clara, Cuba, and Portland, Maine, Hernandez is yet to encounter them. He didn't know how to order food. He didn't know how to interact with people. He just wanted, he said, to spend 12 or 14 hours at the stadium, little Hadlock Field, and make the diamond his home.
"I don't got no family here when I come," he said. "It's like you blind. You don't see nothing. You don't know what you're going to do. The Marlins gave me a lot of money, and I don't know what I want to do with that money."
Now, though, it is easier. His mother, in a story that sounds fictitious, arrived in Miami hours before Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. Later that night, the Marlins beat the Cleveland Indians for the championship, completing easily the best day of his life. Now, his sister is here, too.
"The life is going better and better, every year it passes," Hernandez said. "I enjoy it. I enjoy the life."
That much is apparent. Robinson, who was initially skeptical about the trade that brought Hernandez to Montreal -- one in which the Expos gave up pitchers Jim Brower and Matt Blank -- admitted his initial doubts were completely misplaced. Hernandez, Robinson said, is unusually generous to his teammates, buying them dinner, bringing them gifts, creating an easygoing atmosphere in the clubhouse.
"He sets the standard in here," pitcher Dan Smith said. "Guys are competitive. You're a team, and you want to win. But at the same time, you're competitive with your teammates. Livan sets that tone by going out there the way he does. I think, collectively, it wears off on other guys, especially because he never acts like he's anything special. He's so welcoming to everybody."
His teammates believe they can trust him, be it with the ball or with their reputations. And in the past, he has proven he sticks by his word. He told Boston first baseman Kevin Millar, Hernandez's teammate during their minor league days in the Marlins' system, that if Hernandez ever signed a four-year contract, he'd buy Millar a Mercedes.
When Hernandez signed such a deal with San Francisco, he delivered a Mercedes to Pro Player Stadium, where Millar was playing for the Marlins. Millar, he said, called him and cried.
"I don't want anything back," he said.
What he wants back this year is a chance to win. His buoyant nature had him making outlandish predictions Friday, including that the Nationals would "fight for first place in the division." Pressed, he said the pitching staff would be the key. But with his back pressed against the dugout bench, he concluded his discussion with the following words:
"Trust me," he said. "This team's not going into last place this year."
The smile came again, so convincing.