The scene, as described by 32-year-old outfielder Yadiel Hernandez, through translator Octavio Martinez on Friday, sounds like the one captured in a viral video that made the rounds last September which showed Aaron Barrett learning that he’d earned a call-up following years of rehab from Tommy John surgery and then a fractured right elbow.
There were no injuries involved in this one though, just an equally long, but completely different road to the major leagues, which started in Cuba.
Hernandez played for six seasons with the Cocodrilos de Matanzas in the Cuban Baseball Federation between 2009-2014, but left the Cuban national team during a tournament in North Carolina in 2015.
A year later, he signed on with the Nationals, and in 2017, at 29 years of age, began playing in the organization at Double-A Harrisburg.
Over three seasons in the system, Hernandez put up a combined .301/.385/.503 line with 61 doubles and 63 home runs in 370 games and 1,460 plate appearances, earning a Nationals’ Minor League Player of the Year nod in 2019, when he led Washington’s system in HRs (33), RBIs (90), slugging percentage (.604), batting average (.323), OPS (1.009), hits (142), extra-base hits (56) and runs scored (87), as the club noted on Thursday night, when he made his MLB debut as a pinch runner late in a loss to the Atlanta Braves.
A few days earlier, Hernandez received the news that he was finally getting his shot at the big league level after spending the last few months at the Nats’ Alternate Training Site in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
“I was told down in Fredericksburg by Randy Knorr, who is the Triple-A manager, and it was a very special moment for me, as well as the guys around me,” Hernandez told reporters.
“Because he told it kind of like in the middle of all the group being together there and everyone congratulated me, so it was a very special moment.”
The journey from Cuba to the majors was a long one though, as Hernandez said when he was asked about what it took to get where he is today.
“Just thinking back, it’s very hard,” he said. “It’s definitely not an easy journey. It’s very, very, very difficult. A lot of hard work. I look back at all my years in the minor leagues, and I kept trying to tell myself, keep working hard, keep trying to reach that goal, and I thank God for the opportunity. I see all the hard work has paid off up until now.
“And all I can say, it was very hard, but very gratifying to be here.”
When he debuted, Hernandez, at, “32 years, 337 days old, he became the oldest player to make his Major League debut in Nationals’ history (2005-present),” as noted by the club in their pregame notes on Friday, citing the Elias Sports Bureau. Did he ever give up hope he would get the call?
“In all reality, I think you always have the hope. You don’t stop believing that you’re going to get the phone call, that opportunity to be up here, and I never lost hope.
“I always expected the call to come, you just don’t know when it’s going to come.”
Taking the field for the first time, even if it was as a pinch runner, in an empty ballpark, was a special moment.
“I was obviously very happy, excited to be out there,” Hernandez said. “At some point I felt like I belonged, like it felt natural, because I’ve been with the team since Spring Training, so part of me felt like this is just another game, the other side, just the overwhelming excitement and happiness to be out there and really built up in that moment, and it was a feeling I don’t know necessarily know how to describe too much, but I was just very excited.”
Sticking with it and fighting for his dream paid off. Why and how did he stick it out?
“It’s very simple. As a little kid you grow up, like I did in Cuba, you grow up trying to or striving to play in the best league in the world, which is the major leagues here,” he said.
“And we all strive to be a player and participate and get to the big leagues.
“And in life in Cuba as we know, especially the transition to try to get over [here] and get signed to come over here.
“That whole transition is very difficult, very hard for a lot of us Cubans. So it was one of those things that you always strive for and work hard towards, and it’s something that I never lost hope with trying to get here and play for a big league team.
“And I feel like I finally have reached my goal. I got here, and through all the sacrifice I went through I finally made it.”