Saving a Career

Roberto Hernandez overcame early arm troubles to land on Hall of Fame ballot

December 14, 2012
2013 BBWAA Hall of Fame Candidate Roberto Hernandez (NBHOF Library)

Roberto Hernandez ever threw a big league pitch, he was told his career was done.

Seventeen big league seasons and 326 saves later, Hernandez finds himself on the 2013 Baseball Writers’ Association of America Hall of Fame ballot.

“When they tell you, ‘You might lose your arm or die during the operation,’ that’s not something you want to hear before they put you to sleep,” said Hernandez, who underwent surgery for an aneurysm (an enlarged blood vessel) in his right arm early in 1991 while he was a minor leaguer with the White Sox. “It was scary, man.”

But Hernandez came through the operation without incident, and by September 1991 was in the major leagues for the first time.

Born Nov. 11, 1964 in Santurce, Puerto Rice, Hernandez grew up in New York City and was drafted by the Angels in the first round in 1986. He was traded to the White Sox in 1989, and – after spending most of his minor league career as a starter – was converted to a reliever in 1992. He went 7-3 with a 1.65 earned-run average with 12 saves that year, showcasing a blazing fastball and sharp slider. In 1993, he took over as Chicago’s closer and saved 38 games – the first of six times he cracked the 30-save mark.

“It’s how you deal with (failure),” Hernandez said of pitching in relief, “where you prepare yourself not to be in that situation again.”

Hernandez made his first All-Star team in 1996, finishing sixth in the American League Cy Young Award voting after going 6-5 with a 1.91 ERA and 38 saves. But at the trade deadline in 1997, the White Sox sent Hernandez to the Giants along with Wilson Alvarez and Danny Darwin in exchange for six prospects, including Keith Foulke.

Hernandez finished the 1997 season with a 10-3 record and 31 saves, then signed with the expansion Devil Rays. Over the next three seasons, Hernandez averaged better than 33 saves a year – making another All-Star team in 1999 en route to 43 saves.

“You have to have an attitude when you walk onto the field that you believe you can win,” Hernandez said.

In January 2001, Tampa Bay sent Hernandez to the Royals in a three-team deal that saw Johnny Damon traded to the A’s. Hernandez saved 54 games over the next two seasons for Kansas City before transitioning into a setup role, finishing his career with stints with the Braves, Phillies, Mets, Pirates, Indians and Dodgers.

He retired following the 2007 season, having appeared in 1,010 games – still 13th all-time – with a 67-71 record and a 3.45 ERA. His 326 saves also rank 13th all-time, and Hernandez is one of only 23 career pitchers with at least 300 saves.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum