There's nothing better than listening to the Los Angeles Dodgers' legendary one-man announce team, Vin Scully, call a game. The 83-year-old, Bronx, NY-born Scully, who's been the voice of the Dodgers since 1950, will, without fail, tell you things about your own players you never knew. For instance, I'd never heard of "El Gordo", and I've been following Livan Hernandez's career for years, since he was traded to the Montreal Expos in March 2003, but I'd somehow never heard the story of how the then-20-year-old right-hander defected from Cuba.
Last August, however, when the Nationals visited the Dodgers in LA, Vin Scully told the story spread out like an old newspaper serial and mixed in with his own play-by-play throughout the bottom of the first inning as Livan Hernandez retired the Dodgers in order a half-inning after Ryan Zimmerman's first-inning HR had given Washington a 2-0 lead.
"If ever there was a story, an interesting story about the defection of a Cuban player," Vin Scully began as the Dodgers came up to bat against the then-35-year-old right-hander, "It would be the story of Livan Hernandez."
- "The 1-0 pitch on the way, is outside, ball two." -
"First of all he's 6'2'', 245, 35 years old, from Villa Clara in Cuba," the legendary Dodgers' announcer continued, "that was where Fidel Castro was sent to prison about 50 years ago..."
- "Fly ball to left field, moving under it is Willingham to make the catch. So, Podsednik, a fly ball to left, and one away."
"Let's get back to Hernandez if you don't know the story," Scully said, picking up the narrative, "As a young baseball player, he often thought about defection, and he left the Cuban national team in 1995 while training in Monterrey, Mexico, but here's the part that sounds like a movie."
"He was working out with his team, and a young woman approached him with an autograph book," Scully said, "Well, he'd seen that happen a lot, and when he took the pen, the woman flipped open the book to the center of the book..."
- "The pitch to Theriot, a strike, 0-1."
Scully doesn't miss a beat, "And in the center of the book, there was a photo that had been pasted. It was 'El Gordo,' the Fat Man. Can't you just hear the music?"
- "Theriot hits one foul off of first, out of play. And the count, 0-2."
"They said Livan, when he saw the pitcher of the Fat Man, he just froze," the Dodgers' announcer said, building the drama, "He had seen him several times before, in Japan, Venezuela, the USA. Wherever the Cuban's team had played, the Fat Man had been lurking in the shadows. Back rooms of restaurants, small hotels..."
- "Here's the strike two pitch to Ryan Theriot, and that's high, ball one."
"Well, the woman slipped a piece of paper into Hernandez's hand," Scully said returning the practice field in Monterrey, Mexico and the woman seeking an autograph, "There was a telephone number on it, and all she said to him was, 'Call him.' Well. He called the Fat Man..."
- "Here's the 1-2 pitch to Ryan Theriot, grounded to right side, a great stop by Adam Kennedy to throw him out. So Theriot, whose, half of his hits just about seem to go the other way, robbed of a hit by Kennedy. Adam flashing to his left, nice glove stop, dropped down and spun around, came right back up as if he had been kneeling on a turntable and throws out Theriot. So Andre Ethier comes up..."
"Where were we?" Scully deadpanned. "Oh yeah, the Fat Man. He had called him in the hotel and sure enough, the Fat Man was waiting in the hotel room. They had a spirited conversation."
- "The pitch to Andre Ethier, breaking ball low, ball one."
"Livan told the Fat Man, 'Come pick me up,'" Scully continued, "And at one o'clock in the morning, in a restaurant parking lot in an old industrial section of Monterrey, Mexico, there was Livan Hernandez meeting El Gordo."
- "The 1-0 pitch on the outside corner for a strike, 1-1."
"At one o'clock in the morning, Hernandez was carrying a single bag and he was crying," Scully said, painting a picture of a then-20-year-old Livan Hernandez, who'd made a life-altering decision that night, "The Fat Man stepped out of the car so Livan could see and the player raced across the dark street. But all of a sudden he saw an approaching car..."
- [We hear a Livan Hernandez fastball meets Pudge Rodriguez's mitt. "Steeeee," home plate umpire Jim Joyce shouts.]
- "Ethier takes. In there. 1-2 the count."
"The car swerved at the last instant. Hernandez reached the other side safely and the Fat Man hugged him before urging him to get into his car. Next morning they were in Mexico City. A day later they were on a plane to Venezuela and here he is on the mound in Dodger Stadium," Scully wrapped up, before adding a, "Rummmm."
The story Scully's telling, was first told by Florida Sun-Sentinel baseball writer Gordon Edes, in a 1996 article entitled, "Intrigue, Marlins And The Fat Man", and fourteen years later, the Dodgers' announcer, who'd no doubt re-read the story in preparing notes for the night's game, retold it in such detail you'd swear the story was his own.
The Gordon Edes' article, of course, goes into much more detail. The stadium in Monterrey where the autograph seeker first contacted Hernandez was Sultans Stadium where Hernandez was preparing to pitch in the Intercontintental Cup for the Cuban national team. El Gordo, or The Fat Man, was Joe Cubas, described by Edes as a,"...35-year-old owner of two smallish Miami construction companies," who, when Livan called him, already had three of Livan's teammates at the hotel where he was staying and hiding them.
A year later Hernandez signed a "guaranteed $4.5 million" dollar deal with Florida, choosing the Marlins over George Steinbrenner's Yankees and Stan Kasten and the Braves, both of whom were involved in the bidding for the international free agent. Hernandez began his major league career with the Marlins in 1996, and one year later helped Florida win its first World Series, winning five games, two in the World Series as the Fish bested Cleveland's Indians.
No offense to MASN's Bob Carpenter and FP Santangelo, but if you're watching the Nationals and Dodgers this weekend, make sure you're listening to the Dodgers' broadcast if you can. You never know what Vin Scully will teach you.