DUQUE TWIN WIN FAMILY VISIT DOUBLES TRIUMPH FOR CUBA NATIVE
(LPP Archive) - Saturday, October 24th 1998, 2:05AM
With late-inning help from Cardinal O'Connor and others, the mother and daughters of Yankee pitcher Orlando Hernandez made it from Cuba to New York yesterday in time to help him celebrate the World Series championship.
The high-kicking right-hander had not seen his family since defecting from Cuba 10 months ago. He had only a few hectic hours with them before he had to break away for the victory parade and ceremonies at City Hall Park.
"Yo amo a Nueva York," said the man they call El Duque.
I love New York.
His voice and manner said he really meant it, and for more reasons than Hernandez possessed the English words to say.
He had just floated up the Canyon of Heroes, star of the team he'd always dreamed of pitching for and now here in his first year, he and they were World Series champions.
Yet there was more. Early yesterday morning, in a teary reunion at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, he had hugged his two young daughters and seen his mother, Maria Pedroso, and his ex-wife Norma Manso for the first time since he sneaked away from Cuba on a rickety boat stocked with Spam and drinking water.
He met them at the airport about 3 a.m. in a limousine stocked with champagne for the adults and new blue down jackets for his sleepy-eyed daughters Yahumara, 8, and Steffi, 3.
"Neither of those girls has slept since last night," said Pedroso. "It's all been so unexpected."
The limousine whisked the happy entourage to the Manhattan hotel where Hernandez has been staying.
"He was laughing and singing and hugging his youngest all the way," said the limo driver, Sam Johnson.
Hernandez apparently did not get much sleep either. About 4 a.m., he ducked out of the hotel and into an all-night drugstore. A couple of hours later, he returned to buy a couple of Nickelodeon toothbrushes.
The visitors arrived on a 30-day visa. For at least the next 29 days, they will be free to do what they want.
One of the things they will do is go to church on Sunday, to St. Patrick's Cathedral, as the specially invited guests of O'Connor the ace of the international bullpen that came to Hernandez' relief this week.
Hernandez signaled for help Tuesday, when he sent O'Connor a fax saying how much he missed his family. The pitcher who was so tough on opposing batters was hurting for his daughters in Boyeros, Cuba.
O'Connor took the ball, and before long, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the White House, Vice President Gore, Attorney General Janet Reno and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner were pitching in.
A day after O'Connor received Hernandez' fax, he sent an emissary to hand-deliver a letter to Castro asking him to allow Hernandez' family to visit New York.
It was a touchy request. Two years ago, Hernandez' half-brother Livan a top pitcher for the Cuban national team like Orlando once was defected and joined the Florida Marlins, who won the World Series last year.
Castro, however, decided not to hold a grudge.
"President Castro and his government replied favorably very quickly," said the emissary, Mario Paredes, head of of the Northeast Hispanic Catholic Center.
Paredes tried to telephone Hernandez to get the addresses and phone numbers of his family. But by that time, Wednesday evening, Hernandez was sitting in the visitors' dugout in San Diego for Game 4.
No one at the Stadium would put the call through. It had to be a prank.
"So finally, I persuaded someone there to call me back in Cuba so they'd know I was real, and finally El Duque got on the phone," Paredes said. "He was so overtaken by the news that he'd be seeing his family he couldn't remember any numbers. Finally, he did."
But the game wasn't over yet.
"While in Havana, I found out that our own government wasn't on board yet with this request, in terms of visas and documents and such, so we had to call Cardinal O'Connor in again," Paredes said.
O'Connor made some calls, and before long, someone in Vice President Gore's office called someone in the White House, who called Reno's people.
"When it appeared that Castro was prepared to make this happen so that a guy's family could be with him at the moment of his triumph, we made calls," said Leon Fuerth, an ex-New Yorker who is Gore's national security adviser. "It was the right thing to do. The question was whether it could be done fast enough."
Paredes arranged for a private plane to fly everyone from Havana to Miami.
"Everyone was pretty nervous and tense on the flight over to Miami," said Paredes. "It was the first time that any of them had flown."
In Miami, the girls were given Yankee caps and shirts and some Cabbage Patch dolls and seats aboard George Steinbrenner's private jet, which flew them and the adults into Teterboro.
"They and El Duque had a very emotional reunion," said Paredes. "Hugs and kisses all around. It was very moving."
He said Hernandez hopes to personally thank O'Connor and to ask one more favor to baptize his youngest daughter.