With five dozen scouts watching, Cuban-exile Orlando Hernandez pitched three shutout innings Monday in his first public game in more than a year.
Hernandez, older brother of Florida Marlins right-hander Livan Hernandez, played on a team of Cuban exiles against an amateur Costa Rican club. More than 1,000 fans attended the game, Hernandez's first in public since the Cuban government banned him from baseball in October, 1996.
Hernandez struck out seven and allowed only one baserunner. He was ahead 1-0 when he came out of the game, but his team ended up losing 9-5.
"I am very satisfied," Hernandez said. "I'm still not 100 percent, but I've had only 22 days training. I think the way is open for the big leagues. I think I can pitch there."
BASEBALL HAS GRANTED Hernandez free-agent status, and Monday was the first day teams could negotiate with him.
"He has the tools," said Jorge Posadas, a scout for the Colorado Rockies. "Of course you can't tell that soon, since he hasn't pitched for a long time."
"It's just a beginning. He needs conditioning," said San Diego Padres scout Jose Garcia.
Hernandez, 28, a star pitcher on Cuba's national team, was banned after his younger brother defected while on a team trip in Mexico in 1995. Livan Hernandez was the MVP of the Marlins' World Series victory last season.
The elder Hernandez, who had resisted defecting for years, escaped Cuba on Dec. 26 with seven others on a small boat. They were picked up a few days later on a remote Bahamian island by the U.S. Coast Guard and handed over to Bahamian authorities.
HERNANDEZ WAS OFFERED a U.S. visa, along with his common-law wife and Cuban team catcher Alberto Hernandez, who is not related. But all except Hernandez's wife ended up in Costa Rica when U.S. authorities refused visas to the others in the group.
Alberto Hernandez, 27, who was banned from baseball on the island for alleged contacts with Cuban exiles in Miami, received free agency clearance by major league baseball.
The others approved for free agency were Joel Pedroso, 21, who played on a Havana team; right-handed pitcher Juan Medina, 21; Osmani Santana, 22, an infielder who defected last October while the Cuban national team toured Mexico; and Francisco Santiesteban, 21, a catcher who defected last November while the Cuban team toured Colombia.
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