What Do You Do When You Peak at Twenty-two? Ask Livan, the Prodigal Son of Baseball
Copyright c 2009 Evan Pritchard
What do you do when you leave home at 21 and conquer the known world at 22? Even John Lennon of the Beatles didn’t do that (he left home at 16 and recorded Please Please Me at 22, the Beatles didn’t conquer the known world until the following year). Even Mozart didn’t quite do that.
Who’d Mozart pitch for? He had perfect pitch as a player-manager for the Salzburg Nine in 1778. Child prodigy Mozart broke with his father Leopold at 22 and left to seek his fortune in Paris; he wrote the Paris Symphony, violin sonatas 24-30, and piano sonatas 8-13, with errorless performances all over Europe, before his 23rd birthday. Just after his 24th birthday, he had his opera Idomeneo premiered in Munich for the inauguration of the Elector of Bavaria. Within a year he moved to Vienna and the rest is….history. He was recognized as a world-class composer at 25 and now his bust is in the Hall of Fame.
What Livan Hernandez did back in 1997 was in some ways even more dramatic. A child prodigy of baseball, Livan left his impoverished family in Cuba in 1996 to move to the US and work out with the Marlins. One year later, still 22, he was World Series and National League MVP and a living legend. What do you do for an encore?
Its been a long, strange ride for Livan as it was for Mozart. In 1787, at about the age of 32, Mozart, worn out and dissolute, composed Don Giovanni, an opera with a story that seems to express his remorse for disappointing his father as a prodigal son. On or about Valentine’s Day 2009, Livan’s baseball father Omar Minaya signed the worn out and dissolute pitcher with the New York Mets (no not the opera company, the baseball troupe!). Five days later, Livan became 34 years old. When Mozart was 34 he had one year left to live. Livan may have one year left in his arm. It’s an interesting comparison.
Livan, like the child prodigy Wolfgang, is the prodigal son as well. Like many Mets players, he was with the Marlins when they went all the way in 1997. He did well against the Giants in the NLDS that year, 3 hits in 4 innings of relief, a 2.25 ERA. He was 2-0 in the NLCS versus the Braves in ’97, with a remarkable 0.84 ERA in 10.2 innings pitched, and a complete game victory, earning him series MVP. The World Series against Cleveland was his masterpiece. He started twice and won twice with a 5.27 ERA in 13.2 innings pitched, and was the Marlins’ World Series MVP as well as the National League MVP at the age of 22. His regular season salary that year? A paltry $1,050,000. Like Wolfgang he lived for his art, and he was the virtuoso that other masters traveled to see. His band members that historic year included Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Bobby Bonilla, Luis Castillo, Moises Alou and Cliff Floyd as well as Gary Sheffield and Jeff Conine. Jim Leyland was managing.
Why Does This Name Seem Familiar?
Livan Hernandez? Where have I heard that name before? If you were a Met fan in 2000, you remember that exciting NLDS playoff series against the Giants, which earned the Mets the right to face the Cards then Yankees in the World Series. In that NLDS, we faced Livan, a 17 game winner on the year, and he was tough, giving up 1 run on 5 hits in 7.2 innings. But our pitching was tougher and he lost, but with a 1.17 ERA for the game.
In 2002, Livan found himself pitching again for the Giants. (Barry Bonds was also on that team) He started once in the 2002 NLDS against the Braves. He went 1-0 and had an ERA of 3.24 in 8 innings. Then he went 1-0 in the NLCS versus the Cards. He started one game and had an ERA of 2.84 in 6.1 innings, helping the Jints get to the fall classic versus the awesome Anaheim Angels. He did not do well in that World Series and went 0-2 in two starts against that explosive lineup, giving up 9 runs in only 5.2 innings for a disappointing 14.29 ERA.
But Livan was not a quitter. Omar Minaya was managing the Montreal Expos that year, and soon after the series, on March 24th, 2003 Omar traded Jim Bower to the Marlins for Livan. A few months earlier he had traded for Cliff Floyd. On January 5th, 2004, Minaya traded Scott Stewart to the Indians for Ryan Church. So in 2004, Livan Hernandez, Ryan Church and Cliff Floyd were all playing in Montreal under Omar Minaya. Also on the team were Brian Schneider, Endy Chavez, both Francis and Rigo Beltran, Chad Cordero, Carl Everett, Juan Rivera, and Tony Armas, Jr.,
After some time in Montreal, and then making the plane to Washington, where he almost made it to the post-season, Livan ended up on the Arizona Diamondbacks (who gave him $7M for the year) and started a game in the 2007 NLDS against the favored Cubs and was terrific. He went 1-0 with one run in 5 innings, for a 1.50 ERA, helping to crush the Cubs’ World Series plans. Then the Diamondbacks faced the miraculous Colorado Rockies in the NLCS, probably more exciting a matchup than the World Series that year. Livan started and lost giving up 4 runs in 5.2 innings for a 6.35 ERA. To his credit he had 4 strikeouts versus only 2 walks in that big game. He was only 32 but the years were already beginning to show on the early bloomer from Cuba.
All told, Livan has a post-season ERA of 3.97 with 47 strikeouts and a won-loss record of 7-3 in 9 different series. There are pitchers in the Hall of Fame with worse post-season numbers. But there are other highlights we need to mention.
Livan was in two All Star games, once with the Expos, and once with the Nationals. In 1998 and again in 2004, he had nine complete games, with two shutouts in 2000, 2002, and 2004. In 2004 he had a career high of 186 strikeouts in a career-high 255 innings. His fielding is excellent; he enjoyed a 1.000 fielding percentage in 1998, 2000, 2001, and 2007, including one stretch of at least 77 appearances without an error.
His big seasons:
1997 9-3, 3.18 ERA 72 K
2000 17-11, 3.75 ERA 165 K
2003 15-10, 3.20 ERA 178 K
2005 15-10, 3.98 ERA 147 K
I have a feeling that Omar is going to give him that big chance to prove himself after that terrible season in Colorado. Win or lose, let’s cheer him on, let him know we are Mets fans and that we love the tragic opera that is baseball history. On Saturday, March 14th, in a 6-2 loss to the Nationals, Livan’s old team, Hernandez pitched two scoreless innings, and will almost definitely be a major league Met this season, either as fifth starter or in long relief, as predicted here at Amazine. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was also known to conduct without a score, in other words Mozart had many “scoreless outings!” Check in at Amazine for more updates on the return of Livan Hernandez and strange comparisons to Mozart.
The Minaya Syndrome
Whatever happened to Willie Mays? Duke Snyder? Gil Hodges? Mickey Lolitch? Mo Vaughn? They all became Mets, had mediocre years and then retired. I’m sure you can think of more examples. Really great players who joined the Mets after their prime and faded right before our eyes. Some would add Pedro Martinez to the list, and El Duque Hernandez, Livan’s Cuban cousin. (I like to think these guys and Moises Alou were stopped by injuries rather than spotty performance!)
Some young Met fans who started following the National League in 2006 may not be old enough to remember 2005, that was a long time ago. But in that year of antiquity, Livan Hernandez won 11 consecutive games for the Washington Nationals in their first year in our Nation’s Capitol. And people said, “Gee, wish he was on our side!” Well now he is.
Remember the Montreal Expos? No, okay, I’ll explain it to you. They used to play in a place far away called Canada, and a man named Omar Manaya was involved. Eisler Livan Hernandez pitched for them after three and a half years each with the Marlins and the Giants. Then the Expos moved to Washington, and went from being our least American team to our most. The first year, the Nats were awesome, right up until the end, when they had a big September slide. Even for those who were not former Senators’ fans like myself, it was sad to watch the Nats during that last month.
The following year Hernandez pitched 24 starts with a 9-8 record and was traded to the Diamondbacks, (where he saw post-season action) and then Minnesota and then Colorado where he had an ERA of over 8.00 in 8 starts last year.
Now he wants to be our fifth starter. Of course it would be great to go out to spanking new Citifield and see such a legendary hurler pitch in a spanking new Mets uniform. But then would come the fifth inning. What would happen? I recall a certain poem by Lewis Carroll; “Humpty dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, and all King’s horses and all the King’s men, could not put Humpty together again.”
Can King Omar put this Hernandez together again the way he put El Duque Hernandez back together and, for a while, Pedro, Cliff, and Moises (all players he helped to develop when they were young)? Pitching coach Rick Peterson was around then, he’s not now. Will that make a difference? Sometimes the old player with the heart of a champion can be inspired by younger players eager to get into that post season to do phenomenal things. Livan might be that guy. Looking at Omar’s record with other players from “Hispaniola” that he’s worked with before, I say let’s give him a chance. It’s only a couple of million dollars out of our pocket. Livan has the kind of post-season experience that seems to rub off on kids like David Wright and Jose Reyes. In fact, like Moises Alou before him, he was born too be part of the Mets musical family. We just didn’t know.