By Thomas Boswell
Monday, February 21, 2011; 12:01 AM
Last August, Livan Hernandez walked up to Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo in a hotel lobby and handed him a slip of paper, the kind you find by the phone in your room. A number was written on it.
"I play for that," Hernandez said.
Livan was having one of the best pitching seasons in the National League. FanGraphs statistical analysis estimated his '10 value to the Nats at $12 million. But he was unsigned for '11. Not for long.
"You've got a deal," Rizzo said.
The number written on the paper was $1 million.
"Livan's agent wanted to kill him," Rizzo said. But the handshake deal was honored, plus another $750,000 in incentive bonuses.
"That was the best contract I ever 'negotiated,' " Rizzo said.
However, the better you know Hernandez, the more you realize that it was a deal that delighted him, too, while showing how wonderfully unique he is. "No more, no less," Livan said of the scratch pad contract. "Very nice. I appreciate it. . . . It's the way I wanted to do it. It feels good. I can be my own agent. They've treated me well here."
Hernandez has made $50 million in his career. He already has the Lamborghini. What he wants, and deeply needs, is a true baseball home and a club that needs him. When he starts on opening day at Nationals Park, he'll do it in a town that, to him, symbolizes all the reasons he defected from Cuba in an open boat 14 years and 166 victories ago.
Few modern players have a sense of deep loyalty, even honor, in dealing with their teams. But Hernandez does. He knows who's done him wrong and also who's helped him up when he was down. Just 361 days ago, the Nats picked him up off the scrap heap when no other team would offer him any contract at all after a four-year span in which his ERA was 5.28.
The Nats' $900,000 minor league deal was his only lifeline to the sport that seems to fit his soul like an well-oiled old glove.
Then, the Nats thought they were getting a 240-pound insurance policy who might never pitch an inning for them. Instead, they got an ace who pitched 211 innings with the 14th-best ERA in the NL (3.66). Horrid run support doomed Hernandez to a 10-12 record. But he allowed two runs or less in 20 starts, a huge ratio. Roy Halladay (21-10) only had 19 such games.
Plenty in baseball think Hernandez's season in '10 was a fluke at the end of a fading career. They see his opening day start as proof that the 93-loss Nats have made little progress since they came to D.C. in '05 with - yes, Livan - as their opening day pitcher. Some of us disagree - quite strongly.
"I want to be the Jamie Moyer of right-handers," says Hernandez. With Livo, never discount the utterly implausible. He has never missed a start in his career. Though he's lost 10 mph off his best heat since he was a rookie, he's still bamboozling the best with an average fastball of 84.3 mph - six mph slower than Stephen Strasburg's changeup. In Livo, craft meets guile.
Above all, Hernandez is baseball's emblem of pure joy in playing. In Atlanta last September, he moved from the on-deck circle to the railing to kibitz with fans at arm's length. "I hit this guy [Jair Jurrjens] real good," he told one Braves fan. "I'm going to hit a home run and give the bat to you."
A superb athlete disguised in a round body, Hernandez has a fine .222 career average. But he hadn't homered in four years. Yet he blasted a liner that skipped off the top of the left field fence and went over. "The guy was jumping, yelling, 'You did it!' " Livan said. "I said, 'Hold on one second, I'll get you the bat.' " And he did. Then shut out the Braves for eight innings.
With age, Hernandez has become an iconic figure to fellow players. If he can get so much out of so little, what's wrong with them?
"You've got to play with the game. You can't let the game play with you," Hernandez said. Somewhere, Satchel Paige is smiling.
Livan mixes playfulness and pride in a way ideally suited to baseball's everyday grind. "You get the baseball in your hand. You have to think: 'I can win. Nobody can beat me today.' If it doesn't happen . . ." Livan said, shrugging. Then next time, five days later, you think you're unbeatable again.
Perhaps because he learned the game in baseball-mad Cuba, perhaps because he's an independent thinker by nature, Hernandez has his own unique views on everything. "I hate when pitchers say, 'He hit a homer, but it was a good pitch.' No, that's a bad pitch. A good pitch the hitter misses or grounds into a double play," Livan said. "You must not throw what the hitter is looking for. Then even a curve in the dirt can be a bad pitch."
So, don't impose your theories on the game. Instead, watch each hitter, treat him as unique and be open so that the game can constantly teach you.
"You're not going to be strong by throwing less," he said. "Throw double what the others do." Hence, he may throw 100 pregame warmup pitches. Strasburg once stopped at 28. Between starts, Livan may throw 120 pitches until he masters his mechanics. The result is preternatural precision.
"Since Greg Maddux retired, Livan may be the most fun pitcher in baseball to watch, at least for me," Nats pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "We talk about what he's going to do, but even I can't guess what he'll throw next."
Pitcher and coach only disagree on one subject. "I'll go to the mound and say, 'We're not going to worry about this man [on third base]," McCatty said. "Livo says: 'No, I'm going to worry about it. Every run counts.' "
In Cincy, Livo interrupted McCatty on the mound: "He put his hand on my shoulder and said: 'Don't worry. Go back. I finish this game.' He did."
Last year, one stat story called him "The Luckiest Man Alive" as if his comeback success was just a matter of balls finding gloves, temporary good fortune. "Some scientists say that, aerodynamically, a bumble bee is not supposed to be able to fly," said McCatty. "Nobody told the bumble bee."
Actually, Hernandez hasn't been lucky or unlucky. His FIP (fielder independent pitching) predicts that his career ERA should be 4.41. It's 4.39. Last year, he "should" have been 3.95. Close enough.
"I'm not so sure he's 'near the end,' " Manager Jim Riggleman said. "Power pitchers tend to go downhill fast after 30. But the control pitchers seem to go on a long time. Look at [late career] Maddux."
From age 37 to 41, Maddux averaged 15-12 with a 4.11 ERA in 213 innings a year even though his fastball could no longer break a pane of glass.
If Livan's birthday on Sunday really was only his 36th, then that might be him. But is it true? Last year, he challenged reporters, vowing that he'd give a million dollars to anybody who could prove his age was a lie.
Will we ever know? Probably. Hernandez is a fabulous golfer who shot a 65 this offseason and has a beautiful swing, a magical short game and often hits 350-yard drives with a low draw. The day Livan turns 50 he intends to join the Champions Tour. "Why not?" he says.
Will that debut arrive in 2025 as he says? Or much sooner?