He was lying on a table, with an ice bag on his shoulder and a towel covering his face. Right here. The former Cy Young Award winner. The one-time toast of Detroit. Among the highest-paid relievers in the major leagues.
Willie Hernandez, on ice.
“Ready to talk?” said the visitor.
“Sure,” he said, not moving, “go ahead.”
Willie on ice. It was an appropriate pose, for this baseball season is into its third week and Detroit has barely seen its No. 1 reliever. He threw twice. He got tagged with a loss. And then, inflammation of the shoulder, the left shoulder, the pitching shoulder. Disabled list. Fifteen days. Willie on ice.
“I don’t like this at all,” he said. “It’s really boring. It’s no fun. I know they want me back on the field because of who I am, and maybe because of the money I make. But I shouldn’t rush it.”
A few feet away a man was having his foot massaged. In the corner, a therapist worked the weight machine. The room was sterile, joyless, a sports medicine clinic at a Detroit hospital. How far was this from the final game of the World Series? How far from the 1984 American League MVP Award? How far? Very far.
“I want outta here,” he said.
Hernandez is still a top reliever, maybe still a great one, but his star has dimmed in this hungry city. Too many games he came in to save but handed
over instead. His fault? Yes and no. Relief pitching is a high-risk business. But because he appears with games on the line, a Hernandez mistake is as unforgettable as a lover’s smack.
And so in 1985 the fans booed a little. And in 1986 they booed more. And Hernandez, who figures he deserves better — and perhaps he is right — has taken it inside and allowed it to boil. Sometimes the things he says, because his native tongue is Spanish, can be a little unclear. And sometimes. . . .
“Bleep the fans. I don’t give a bleep about the fans. I know they pay my salary. I don’t give a bleep. I don’t care if you write it down. The way they’re treating me? Bleep ’em. I’m not gonna go out there hurt. For these fans? They don’t give me any bleeping support. I come out of the bullpen, they start booing! Bleep them!”
Well. That was pretty clear, wasn’t it?
But understand this. Hernandez, 32, is a sudden faucet, hot and cold, a scowl then a smile then a scowl again. His emotions run close to the surface, you can read them in his eyes, and when he’s angry he shows it and when he’s happy he shows it and it’s hard to be happy when you ride stationary bicycles in the morning and lift little weights in the afternoon and all the time you’re wishing you were back with your teammates in the fresh spring sunshine.
“I feel like I could pitch right now,” he said, removing the towel from his face. “But I can’t come off the list yet (his 15 days are up Friday). I’ve been watching the games on the television, but sometimes I can’t even watch. The frustration, you know?”
We know. He knows. Hernandez has heard plenty of frustration in the roar of Tiger Stadium. His 32 saves of 1984 were down to 24 last season (“How you gonna have another season like ’84?”). His ERA rose from 1.92 to 3.55 (“The team and me struggle together”). The man Sparky Anderson used to turn to with a private grin has become the man he turns to with a silent prayer. Any championship-hopeful team needs an ace in the hole, a stopper. It has always been Hernandez, since he arrived three seasons ago. But this year?
“I don’t let any of this stuff ruin my confidence,” he said. “I can’t go out there and say, ‘I hope I get this guy out.’ I say, ‘This guy’s already out. I own this guy.’ If he gets a hit, I think it’s because I mess up, not because he did something.”
He fingered the ice, then put it back on his shoulder. “Sparky gives me a lot, my teammates give me a lot. But there are people out there who want to take it away from you. Fans, they make you feel like, ‘Oh, man, we can’t bring Willie in now because he’s struggling! He’s gonna blow it!’ Those people can put pressure on Sparky to think like that. And that’s the worst thing you can do to a guy who’s struggling. He needs support. He needs confidence.”
“That’s bad. No confidence.”
At his best, in his rarest form, Hernandez was virtually invincible. He appeared in 80 games in the magical World Series year. That’s one shy of half the entire schedule. Yet, as he is quick to point out, that year was deceptively easy, because the team was blessed with a perfect script, and because he was healthy the entire season.
“You know what?” he said. “The people should appreciate my 1985 season more. Look how many injuries I have in ’85! I was a cripple. My Achilles tendon, my back, my elbow, my shoulder, my neck, two busted ribs. I was hurting, and I came in from the bullpen every day hurt.
“I couldn’t even get out of my car because of the ribs. You know, when you cool down after the game? I didn’t have any strength. I had to honk the horn when I got home. My wife was waiting at the door to help me out of the car.”
He shook his head.
“That’s what people should appreciate.”
Hernandez had an 8-10 record in 1985, with a 2.70 ERA. But it was the 1986 campaign that brought the loudest boos. He endured a series of late-inning collapses. The Tigers fell out of the race. To the Detroit fans, the stopper had become a time bomb, and this year’s injured start has done little to bolster his image. He has come a long way from the dusty fields of Aguada, Puerto Rico, where he learned to play with a right- handed glove. Yet now his salary (more than $1 million a year), in these suddenly frugal times, stands out like a fastball among knucklers.
“I’m still confident,” he said. “Nothing’s gonna change my attitude. The fans aren’t gonna change it, Sparky’s not gonna change it, the front office is not gonna change it. No way. I’m positive.”
He removed the ice bag, and went to change clothes.
“I don’t even care if all the fans leave when I come out of the bullpen,” he said.
“That would be interesting,” someone mused.
“Yeah,” he laughed. “I probably do better.”
So here was Willie on ice. Who knows, when he gets back, if he’ll be the old one, the new one, the in-between one? Relief pitching is Russian roulette. You hope. You play. Hernandez said he is feeling better, he is ready to get on with it. And he is counting the hours, not the whispers.
As he walked through the building on his way out, a woman came up with a paper and pen.
“Oh Willie, I’m a really big fan of yours,” she said. “Could you sign this for me, something in Spanish?”
“In Spanish, really?” he said.
He took his time and signed a fairly long message, in Spanish, as she had asked. She walked away. Hernandez smiled.
“I’m gonna be so happy when I get back,” he said.
“Happy enough to forgive the fans?” he was asked.
“Bleep the fans,” he said.