Orlando and Livan Hernandez are half brothers from Cuba who weren’t particularly close during their adolescence. There was a wide gap in age and a stark difference in personalities. Yet, they would share a common thread as adults, becoming celebrity baseball pitchers who refused to be intimidated by the Fidel Castro regime. The startling revelations and tearful moments are exposed in the dramatic documentary, Brothers In Exile, part of the 30 for 30 series on ESPN.
The film focuses on the economic problems that rocked the Communist island in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. Peloteros on Fidel’s national team were paid only three pesos per game, making the urge to defect during international tournaments a risky but tempting opportunity. After a contest in Monterrey, Mexico on a September 1995 evening, Livan, only 20, had a plan in place. He walked out of the team hotel and then sprinted toward a waiting vehicle, ready to seek asylum.
Livan’s daring act left his older brother Orlando, a seven-year veteran on the squad, in a position of distrust in the eyes of the Cuban authorities. Subsequent events led the famed hurler, better known as “El Duque,” to plot his own escape on Christmas Day in 1997. Together with a girlfriend and five companions, he fled the island shores from a small fishing village in a leaky boat. It was a perilous journey that would involve a rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard, jail time in the Bahamas, and a generous gesture by the government of Costa Rica.
In the end, it was the cunning of Joe Cubas, a Miami-based sports agent, that enabled both brothers to solve their legal issues and sign lucrative major league contracts. Livan, the young maverick, would celebrate a World Series title in his rookie season with the Florida Marlins. “El Duque,” who didn’t pitch stateside until age 32, would earn four championship rings with the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox.
The documentary was brilliantly directed by Puerto Rican filmmaker Mario Diaz, and sprinkled with commentary by Cuban baseball historian Peter Bjarkman and author Steve Fainaru. It also includes excerpts from both brothers throughout the production to punctuate key events. It’s important to note that these pioneers helped pave the way for the current influx of Cuban players who now enjoy fewer restrictions in their search to live the American dream. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, this is a must-see slice of real life that will warm the heart.
30 For 30: Brothers in Exile
Director: Mario Diaz