Just the Red Sox' luck. Their Fenway Park fans finally get tough, do their ugliest imitation of Yankee Stadium goons, and what happens? In the next game, the Yanks send Orlando Hernandez to the mound, a guy who defected from Cuba in an open boat.
Do you think "El Duque" stayed up all night tossing and turning before Game 5 of the American League Championship Series worrying that some looped college boy might toss an empty plastic soda bottle at him?
The Yankees own the AL pennant again--how many is that now, 99 of 'em in this century?--and they can thank Hernandez. After setting up the Game 1 win with eight strong innings, he tied the Red Sox in knots for seven shutout innings while New York built a 4-0 lead.
There may not be a Curse. Babe Ruth's daughter was here and she swears her dad wouldn't pull a dirty trick like that. But something's afoot. Of all the pitchers in baseball, you couldn't have picked one--not one--as well suited for the particular controversies surrounding this game as "El Duque."
On Sunday night, dozens of Fenway fans got rowdy, threw junk from the stands at the Yankees and generally disgraced the proud name of Harvard. Maybe even Southie, too. The mayor of Boston apologized. The Red Sox apologized. The Boston media feigned horror. The numbers on the Jimmy Fund sign would probably have apologized, too, if anybody had asked them.
Okay, maybe Jimy Williams didn't apologize, bless his heart. Told that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said he "incited the crowd," the Boston manager said: "When George Porgie speaks, I don't listen."
However uncouth their method, the Bosox fans had at least sent a message--the kind that the Bronx Zoo has been delivering for decades. Umps who blow too many calls and visiting players who dare to beat the home team shouldn't feel too comfortable here. Something might happen. It almost never does, of course. But the thought can unsettle the nerves. Especially if the visiting team's pitcher has a tender psyche.
Yes, just the Red Sox' luck. They finally work up the unmitigated bad taste to throw a scare into somebody and look who the Yankees send to the mound. The bald guy with the high-knee kick, the mysterious birthday and the best cell-block stare since Dave Stewart.
"What's to scare him after leaving Cuba? We really don't know what size boat he came over on, but . . . he had to slide out of the country . . . hide somewhere and be found," said Yankees Manager Joe Torre. "That's not the way we got to the ballpark, I know that. So, this is just a game to him."
Actually, "El Duque" gave his thoughts on rowdy fans the day before Fenway had its eight minutes of broken china on Sunday night. So, Orlando, how do they compare for ferocity to Cuban fans?
"In Cuba, they throw rocks to tomatoes, to anything they can find onto the field," said Hernandez through his translator, coach Jose Cardenal. "If you win, the opposing fans, they're going to try to beat you any way they can. Then if you lose, your own fans are going to try to kill you. So, it's one way or another. We don't have a choice."
Hernandez had to suppress his mirth. Which towns were tougher than Boston? "Santiago, Villa Clara, Havana," said Hernandez. That doesn't even count all the other Caribbean countries where Cuba's national team plays in legendarily hostile parks. Latin baseball, especially what Cuba faces in international play where they wear the black hats, makes the big leagues look like a church picnic.
Maury Wills, managing in winter ball, once returned to the dugout after removing a favorite local pitcher. The fans poured a bucket of urine on his head. Now that's grass-roots public opinion in action. Hernandez grew up in a baseball culture where rival fans don't even sit on the same side of the stadium. By staying apart, they can use slingshots to lay siege to each other. Hernandez pitched in parks where, over the years, sections of bleachers were broken up to start good-luck bonfires.
When the wind-chill index is 26 degrees, the crowd is howling and the Green Monster seems to loom about 10 paces behind your shortstop, it's good to have those memories of Santiago and Villa Clara. The Red Sox had Hernandez, who was 17-9 this season, in plenty of jams. Yet the hot water just seemed to warm him up.
After the first two Red Sox hitters singled to put men at the corners in the first, Hernandez followed a slow windup with a 91-mph fastball on the fists to strike out Jason Varitek. Nomar Garciaparra, slugging .875 in this ALCS as he stepped to the plate, popped up and Troy O'Leary flied out weakly. Well, so much for the heart of the order and the roar of the crowd.
With two men on, Hernandez ended the second inning by fanning the hottest of all Sox--Jose Offerman, who was 11 for 21 in the series. Start him with a slow curve, finish him with a hard curve under his hands.
Even a leadoff error by Derek Jeter in the sixth didn't faze "El Duque." After falling behind O'Leary 3-0, he still got him to ground out. That marked the third Red Sox batter to have Hernandez in a 3-0 hole, yet never hit a ball hard. Mike Stanley and Brian Daubach finished the threat, if you can call it that when the Red Sox get men on base in October, with a soft fly and a weak groundout.
Before this game, there was much tut-tutting about the deterioration of American culture, the cult of the self-centered individual, the contemporary tendency to seek brief moments of unearned celebrity through violence and--well--a whole bunch of stuff like that.
"Watch TV, go to movies, listen to radio," philosophized Torre. "Everything's down now. There are no barriers anymore."
There's truth in all that. But, as usual, there's an opposite truth as well. In the world Hernandez comes from, the recent foolishness at Fenway is just fluff. As they say, he knows what real pressure is. For the few who survive such hardships, for those who have endured despite spending their lives surrounded by perils worthy of an open ocean, the result is a personality as tough as a trusty old glove and as solid as the tightest-grained ash.