The scene is one Livan Hernandez still remembers perfectly…even if it’s been over six years. There he was on his knees, looking skyward and pounding his chest with both fists just seconds after the Florida Marlins had wrapped up the 1997 World Championship. A major contributor to the Marlins’ title run, Hernandez deserved his share of the spotlight in posting four victories in the League Championship Series and World Series combined. Just 22 at the time, the Cuban-born right-hander became the youngest pitcher ever to win a World Series opener. His reward: World Series MVP.
But Hernandez has experienced his share of bumps in the road, posting just two winning seasons since 1998. He’s been questioned over the years for his inability to work out of trouble and stay in shape. Last season marked a strong rebound season, though, as Hernandez finished 8th in the majors in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) among all pitchers. On Tuesday he returns to Pro Player Stadium to handle Opening-Day duties against the Marlins. Montreal’s staff ace recently discussed his assignment in Miami, his World Series success and his career in Cuba, among other topics of conversation, with Baseball Prospectus.
Baseball Prospectus: The thing you will never forget from 1997?
Livan Hernandez: The way the fans and the city of Miami took me in. Being a young kid in a new country I came to the ballpark everyday with the comfort that I had support from a lot of people. Looking back now I think that really helped me get through the season.
BP: The 2003 season was your best ever as a major league pitcher, and you came on strong in the second half (3.63 first-half ERA, 2.67 second-half). What was the difference?
Hernandez: Our pitching coach (Randy St. Claire) worked with me on how I was releasing the ball. Carlos Tosca (Toronto Blue Jays manager) was the one who told me that I should work on my arm angle. I had worked with Tosca in the Marlins’ minor league system so I really respect his opinion. After Carlos told me I really noticed a big difference.
BP: You led the league in complete games last season and you’ve always been known as a durable pitcher who seems to get better as the game moves on. How do you explain that?
Hernandez: I just think it’s a mind set you have. Every time I go out there in my head I’m going to finish the game. I may not have my best stuff, but I’m going to do everything possible to keep my team in the game.
BP: You’ve thrown at least 216 innings (and been among the leaders in Pitcher Abuse Points) in the last four seasons, yet you’ve never spent a day on the disabled list. What’s been the key to staying healthy?
Hernandez: I don’t know if there’s really one thing you can outline. It’s been a combination of things for me. I think the most important thing for me is that no matter where I’ve been I’ve always had good trainers. I also follow a program of arm exercises in preparation for the season. I’ve always been a believer that you can’t put away the baseball in September and pick it up in February expecting to be ready for spring training. I usually start long-tossing a couple of weeks before I show up for camp. I think that’s why a lot of guys have arm problems (that they don’t follow strict enough regimens).
BP: You threw just 96 major league innings in 1997 and then 234 the next year. Jim Leyland, the Marlins’ manager at the time, was questioned for his handling of the pitching staff. Was being overused something that entered your mind back then?
Hernandez: I used to listen to the media and kind of laugh to myself because in Cuba I would go three or four times a week if they needed me. I was so focused in doing my work it never really entered my mind. I guess I’ve been blessed with good health–knock on wood.
BP: What about pitching in Cuba–what do you remember most?
Hernandez: The one thing I will always remember is how serious people took the games there. I don’t think the people here have the passion for the game that they have in Cuba.
BP: You really stood out as a member of the Cuban Junior National Team, especially in the 1993 Junior World Championships in Mexico. You were pretty much unhittable. What was that experience like?
Hernandez: I think I had like 20 strikeouts in 12 innings (actually 19). It was one of those things that I felt I could get anybody who stepped up to the plate.
BP: You’re going to start the 2004 season in seventh place all-time in victories by a Cuban pitcher. Is that a record you think about at all?
Hernandez: I’ve never taken the mound thinking about records, but it would be a great feeling to be up there with some of those guys.
BP: Your physical conditioning has come into question on occasion. Do you see your weight being an issue now or in the long run, being something that catches up with you?
Hernandez: I’m never going to be a guy that is going to be full of muscles. I don’t think the people who question my work ethic really know how much I put into getting ready for the season. Hey, I like to have a few good meals here and there. I don’t see a problem with that as long as you get the job done on the mound.
BP: You are entering the option year of a four-your deal signed with San Francisco before the start of the 2000 season. With the uncertainty facing the franchise is returning to Montreal really an option for you after this season?
Hernandez: I’m not going to say I haven’t thought about it. I’m not a young guy anymore. Seven years ago I didn’t care where I was playing as long as I was wearing a big league uniform. But I’d like to know that I will have some security in the coming years. I’ve made more money than I ever imagined. But again it would be nice to know I’ll be staying somewhere for a long time. Is it going to be in Montreal? I couldn’t tell you that right now.
BP: Let’s say it’s the middle of July and the Expos are out of the race. You know if that happens you could get traded, right?
Hernandez: A large part of this game is mental–especially for a pitcher–so I can’t even think about getting traded right know. The bottom line is I have a responsibility to this franchise as long as I wear their uniform. If that were to change later then that’s when I’ll deal with it.
BP: How about another run with the Marlins?
Hernandez: That’s the most fun I’ve ever had in baseball (1997) and Miami will always be home for me, so pitching for the Marlins again would be something I’d probably take a look at if the opportunity presented itself. But I’m a a member of the Montreal Expos and that’s all I’m concerned with. A lot of people aren’t giving us much of a chance this season, but I’m really excited about what we could do this year. I know we don’t have Vlad (Guerrero) anymore, but there is still a lot of talent here with Jose (Vidro), Orly (Cabrera) and Brad (Wilkerson). I’m ready to go.
BP: Any thoughts on facing the Marlins in the opener?
Hernandez: Yes…I can’t wait. Getting the ball for Opening Day is always a big honor and I feel a great sense of responsibility. And going up against the Marlins makes it even bigger. I have a lot of friends over there.
Fernando Ruano, Jr. is a freelance baseball writer based in Miami whose contributions have appeared in the Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and San Juan (P.R.) Star. He can be reached email@example.com.