By Michael E. Miller
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And that's as far as he got. Like the careers of most people who've played professional baseball, his ended early, at age 23. His friends back in the Bronx encouraged him to abandon the game to get a real job. He took their advice, but he never took to the real job, working as a construction carpenter. He vowed to stay in his sport.
Within a year, and with only a few dollars to his name, he bluffed his way into owning a minor league team in North Carolina. He and a partner opened some baseball skills camps to teach the fundamentals to suburban kids in New Jersey and Connecticut. The camps prospered in a modest way and enabled him to branch out to other ventures. He bought a few more minor league teams. He opened a few more camps. For a time he owned the Miami Tropics of the second-tier United States Basketball League. He eventually divested himself of that team, and of the baseball teams, too. The sports camps still exist, and they help him live a comfortable-enough life for a man his age. He plays racquetball almost every morning. There's plenty of food in the house, which he has owned for 25 years.
Baseball remains in his blood, though, even at this late stage in life. He talks about the game every day, to almost everyone he meets. Many afternoons, sitting at a wooden table on his back porch, he scrawls vituperative letters to major league players -- bums, he calls them -- he accuses of having forgotten how fortunate they are to earn a living in the game. He counsels young athletes playing basketball or soccer to switch to his preferred sport. He also keeps his eye peeled for talent that may have been overlooked by baseball scouts. That's how he found Raul Hernandez, his latest prospect, his newest purpose.
Hernandez is the owner of a Mobil gas station in Kendall. Haneles likes the man for his gas, sure, especially because he receives an exclusive "baseball" discount on every fillup. Haneles likes him more because, in his mind, at least, Hernandez is the best baseball player on the planet.
Haneles discovered the pitching phenom by chance. Actually, it was Evelyn who first met Hernandez at the Mobil station. She was pumping gas into her car when Hernandez started talking about his favorite sport. He said he was a pitcher. She went home and told her husband. Within minutes Lou Haneles was at the gas station to gauge the quality of Hernandez's stuff.
They walked over to the side of the station, Hernandez wearing his work shirt and blue pants. A grease monkey from the garage agreed to catch. Through warmups, the pop of the ball in the mitt harmonized with the ding-ding of cars pulling up to the pumps. Hernandez threw his slider. He threw his fastball. By not cracking his wrist during delivery, he made a third pitch juke and jive in a screwball.
"I'm telling you, the man has control!" Haneles says of the performance. "He'd tell the catcher to put his glove down near the ground and the ball would land perfectly in the pocket. Raul'd have the glove moved up a foot and to the left and he'd still fire the ball right in there. With control like that, you don't need to be overpowering; you just need to be smart." Haneles stops for a moment. His eyes twinkle as he considers a faraway vision. "I left there that day convinced that Raul Hernandez could be the smartest pitcher, the best pitcher, to ever play the game. Ever."
Something should probably be clarified right now. Raul Hernandez is 59 years old. If this age doesn't immediately set off alarms, consider this context: The oldest player in the major leagues, Dennis Eckersley, is 44. The average age is 29. The pitcher whose motion Hernandez emulates, Gaylord Perry, was known as "the Ancient Mariner" before he retired at age 45.
It is inherently illogical that Hernandez can pitch in the majors, nor at any other level of the pros. When Haneles talks about his prospect -- gushes is a better way to describe it -- he slides farther out on baseball's gadfly fringe. After all, as a failed minor leaguer, he has to know all about the torturously long road to the top. Yet Haneles simply dismisses what seems obvious to everyone else. "Most players don't realize how easy it is to get to the majors," he says. "I'm telling you, it's so much easier than it looks."
It helps that Hernandez agrees. "People seem to believe that a person my age pitching in the major leagues is an impossibility," Hernandez says. He is wearing his blue work shirt, emblazoned with the Mobil logo, two ballpoint pens at the ready in his pocket. His hair is steel gray. "The truth is, I can pitch anywhere, against anybody. It's hard to swallow that a guy nearly 60 years old can pitch so well, but some people are exceptional."