By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Haneles watches the warmup from a perch near the field's chainlink backstop. Standing in the sun, he looks the part of a Miami Beach retiree. Khaki socks match khaki shorts. His sneakers are generic black. His eyes are protected by a pair of all-eclipsing sunglasses that extend nearly to his hairline. Shading his whole face is the brim of a battered black cap advertising his New Jersey camp. When Hernandez winces, Haneles winces too.
Today was going to be Hernandez's coming-out party, his media debut. Haneles's previous attempts to draw attention from the Miami Herald or from the general managers of major league clubs have all failed. Most discouragingly, perfunctory letters came from a certain local club that lost more than 108 games this year, the teal team of former world champions now known officially as the worst organization in baseball.
"I wrote one letter to Jim Leyland [former Florida Marlins manager]. He never wrote me back," Haneles grumbles. "I've written letters to David Dombrowski [the club's general manager] for more than three years, where I told him he'd be stupid not to bring Raul onto his team. I mean, Raul is the smartest man in the game of baseball."
Dombrowski, who has his own reputation for intelligence, doesn't necessarily disagree. In his correspondence with Haneles, though, he tends to focus on Hernandez's advancing age:
May 19, 1998
Thank you once again for your recent letter in regards to Raul Hernandez.
Lou, as previously mentioned to you, our organization has tried to build with younger players that will be with us in 2002. Unfortunately, Raul does not fit this description, so our organization is not interested in trying to sign him. However, we appreciate your continued interest in bringing his name to our attention, and if we have any change in thought, we will be in contact with you.
"They told me he's too old," Haneles says. "Okay, granted, that makes sense. But they got twelve pitchers on the team. You mean to tell me they couldn't use Raul in one of their twelve positions? Not only is he probably the best pitcher throwing today, he also would be a great draw. Come on, the guy's from Cuba. Think about it!"
Today Hernandez's own club is the one that needs him. His Yankees are suffering a rout at the hands of the Braves, another team in the over-30 Miami Senior Baseball League. Simple popups into shallow right field are dropping between three confused Yankee fielders. The Braves knocked the Yankees' starting pitcher out in the first inning. The reliever has fared little better. Line drives are landing all over the place, allowing Braves to score seemingly at will.
Hernandez is usually on the mound. He'd be there now except that a couple of days ago, as he tried to move a heavy air conditioner, he slipped and injured his leg. Nothing broken, fortunately, but he's walking with a limp. His resolve to sit out the game, his first missed start in months, disappeared about the time the Braves scored their sixth run.
"My advice to him is not to push it," Haneles cautions. "Otherwise he'll hurt his arm. It's just like Dizzy Dean when he played for the Cubs. He hurt a toe on his right foot, yet he still tried to pitch. He overcompensated by turning his shoulder too much and threw out his arm. I don't want that to happen to Raul."
After a few more weak overhand tosses, Hernandez realizes the wisdom of Haneles's advice. Stepping gingerly on his gimpy leg, he pulls off his glove and tosses it into the dugout. He looks over at Haneles and wags his index finger back and forth. He can't take the mound. Potentially the best pitcher in the history of the game takes a seat on the bench.
Haneles stands behind the backstop, staring out at the field. He is silent as the sounds of the game come to him: cleats scuffing infield dirt, the ping of an aluminum bat. His posture speaks of disappointment but his words are encouraging. There is a chance Hernandez could be ready next week for a game in Homestead. If not that Sunday, then in two weeks for sure. There will still be an opportunity for him to display his talents, Haneles says, smiling. He still has faith.