Saturday, October 18, 1997
Young Cuban could break
Tribe's karma

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Livan Hernandez
| ZOOM |
MIAMI - The secret of Livan Hernandez's success is his sanity. He will not get all weird on us, starting the first game of his first World Series.

He is a rookie, and all that, but he knows better than to lose his mind when it really matters.

''In this country,'' the Florida Marlins' pitcher said Friday afternoon, ''the first thing you've got to do is don't go crazy.''

That was the translation, at least. Hernandez is Cuban by birth and American by defection. For the big games back home, he would put on his uniform at home and ride to the ballpark by bicycle.

Baseball, he says, is a lot more difficult in America, but a lot more comfortable. Seldom has a single player's comfort zone been more crucial to the winning of a World Series.

The Marlins begin the best-of-seven series slightly favored and seriously flawed. Their pitching staff has been depleted by Alex Fernandez' rotator cuff, and two of their three most accomplished hitters are hampered by injury. If Livan Hernandez is anything short of swell, Cleveland could make this a mighty short series.

Picking against the Indians is perilous these days. They have more power and more speed than the Marlins, a tighter defense and a healthier pitching staff. Besides, they are on a roll that defies reason, with six straight one-run victories and an implausible series of last-ditch dramatics. If the World Series were a karma contest, it would be no contest.

Bet on good pitching

But if baseball follows a trend line in October, it is that good pitching beats good vibes. When Livan Hernandez last took the mound, he struck out 15 Atlanta Braves under peak playoff pressure. Given his talent and his temperament, he would not figure to crack tonight, even without the comforting presence of Eric Gregg calling balls and strikes.

You would figure Hernandez would be just fine. You could not, however, know for sure.

There are not many known quantities in this World Series. Much as the Marlins sought to purchase the pennant last winter, they are still an expansion team in their fifth year of operation, and some of their original holes remain. Now, with Alex Fernandez out and Moises Alou (wrist) and Bobby Bonilla (hamstring) ailing, their holes become hurdles.

This is what makes Livan Hernandez' mindset so critical to Florida's cause. If the 22-year-old phenom can handle the hype, the stakes and Ed Montague's strike zone, he could mask a lot of Marlin liabilities. If not, the possibility that he could pitch three times in the series might not seem so appealing.

Hernandez's Game 1 opponent is Orel Hershiser, a pitcher of lesser stuff but exhaustive experience. Hershiser was named Most Valuable Player of the World Series in 1988, when Livan Hernandez was 13 years old.

''I think experience is important,'' Hershiser said Friday, ''because it relieves the surprise and the emotion and just the newness of the whole situation. This is all very, very exciting, and it's great to be here, but you have to discipline yourself to stay calm and to go about your normal routines.''

Center of attention

Hershiser understands how to deal with the postseason circus. Livan Hernandez, meanwhile, can't seem to get off the carousel. He dropped into a Cuban restaurant Wednesday for lunch, and his presence created such a stir that the meal lasted four hours. Friday, he was presented with a key to the city.

''Life's changing,'' he said. ''This is something very, very big, one of the most beautiful things that's happened to me since I've been in the United States.''

By the end of tonight's series opener, Livan Hernandez will have played in as many World Series games as he has watched. He remembers some hand-me-down highlight films from 1992 and 1993, but his only experience at watching the World Series live was last year's final game between the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves.

''It was very emotional,'' he remembered. ''I saw how great it is to win.''

The prediction here is that the Indians will be celebrating after six games. The disclaimer is that Livan Hernandez could change everything.