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Where Are They Now?: Roberto Hernandez

Not in his wildest imagination as an 18-year-old high school dropout could Roberto Hernandez have envisioned a 17-year major league career that included 1,010 appearances.

“I would have still pictured myself bagging groceries and stocking shelves,” Hernandez said from his home in Gulfport, Fla., where he and his wife Ivonne enjoy retirement as they assist in the rearing of their lone grandchild.

Hernandez was a junior at Chelsea Vocational School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side when his mother’s illness rendered her unable to work as a home attendant. His father’s income as a tailor could not cover family expenses.

So, Hernandez and his brother Julio, a senior at the time, dropped out of school. They began working at Parkview Super Market across the street from their home at the corner of 87th and Columbus.

“We had to make ends meet,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez also had the great fortune to work during the summer months for the DOME project, which provides programs to children to keep them active and off the streets. Program supervisors convinced Hernandez to return to school and landed him a scholarship to the New Hampton School in New Hampshire.

Thus began a circuitous route through amateur baseball, first as a catcher, then as a top pitching prospect. He earned starting catching duties in 1985 as a freshman at Connecticut, all the while believing he had a future as a pitcher.

Finally, while playing in the collegiate summer Valley League, Hernandez got his chance on the mound. His coach Larry Carr liked what he saw of Hernandez and called Gary Gilmore, who had played under Carr at Coastal Carolina and was the pitching coach at South Carolina-Aiken.

“If you don’t give this guy a full scholarship (as a pitcher), you’re going to regret this,” Hernandez recalled Carr telling Gilmore.

Gilmore signed Hernandez sight unseen. Hernandez headed into equally unchartered waters of backwoods South Carolina. Word quickly spread and scouts began to gather as Hernandez showed off the most powerful arm in the 1986 draft.

The Angels drafted Hernandez with the 16th overall pick. Five years later he was off on a career that included stops with 10 teams that concluded in 2007 with a 3.45 ERA and 326 saves that ranks 18th all time. He had a career-high 43 saves with the Rays in 1999, one of his two all-star seasons.

Fate was on Hernandez’s side in August 1989 when the Angels traded him to the White Sox and he fell under the wing of closer Bobby Thigpen.

“He taught me how to be a reliever and how to be a back-end reliever,” Hernandez said of Thigpen. “A person grooming somebody else to take his spot is unheard of, but he did it.”

Hernandez recently reflected on his major league career shortly upon his return to Florida following his annual trip to the Dominican Republic. That is where he used $20,000 of his $90,000 signing bonus out of college to purchase land and build a home for his parents.

Gavin Stone Billmitchell

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