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‘El Duque’ Celebrates Mass

October 25, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ Cardinal John O’Connor, celebrating a Mass attended by Cuban defector and New York Yankees star Orlando Hernandez, thanked Fidel Castro for permitting the pitcher’s family to come to the United States.

``We are grateful to President Castro,″ O’Connor said Sunday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. ``He also has stated explicitly that the family is free to return to Cuba.″

The pitcher known as ``El Duque,″ seated in a front-row pew with his family, nodded and smiled as O’Connor delivered a portion of his homily in Spanish. Earlier, Hernandez and his family received applause when introduced to parishioners. One of his daughters waved a small Cuban flag.

The Cardinal, instrumental in bringing the family to the United States, also thanked Attorney General Janet Reno, FBI Director Louis Freeh and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

``We are grateful to all of those who were involved,″ he said.

O’Connor disputed reports that the Mass was offered in honor of Hernandez.

``This Mass is in honor of God,″ the cardinal said. ``Give thanks to him for having El Duque and his family here.″

After Mass, the Hernandez family had brunch in O’Connor’s residence. At that time, the pitcher planned to ask the cardinal to baptize his daughters, 8-year-old Yahuamara, and 3-year-old Steffi.

They could not be baptized in Cuba, where the Roman Catholic church was oppressed for 40 years under the Castro’s rule.

There was no immediate statement from Hernandez.

The 29-year-old pitcher had pleaded with Cardinal O’Connor late in the baseball season to help bring his family to America. The cardinal forwarded the request to Castro, whom he met while accompanying the pope to Cuba in January.

Castro acceded, and the family arrived in time to join Hernandez for the parade Friday that feted the Yankees’ World Series sweep of the San Diego Padres.

The children, his mother and his ex-wife reunited with Hernandez earlier Friday. It was the first time the pitcher had seen them since the December day when he, his wife and six others fled in a small boat and landed on a remote Bahamian island.

Hernandez, who signed a four-year, $6.6 million contract with the Yankees in March, was banned from playing in Cuba for dealing with American major league scouts.

Hernandez was an important part of the Yankees’ staff this season. He had a 12-4 record and a 3.13 ERA during the season and was 2-0 in the postseason with an 0.71 ERA.

The State Department last week issued a 30-day visa for Hernandez’s mother, his daughters and his ex-wife, the mother of his children.

Hernandez’s half-brother, Livan, also played baseball in Cuba and defected in 1995. He was the 1997 World Series most valuable player for the Florida Marlins. His mother, who is not Orlando Hernandez’s mother, was allowed to fly from Cuba to Miami to visit him just before Game 7.

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