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Old 03-29-2005, 02:34 AM  
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Passan: Runelvys healthy again, and as cocky as ever


Starting gun

Arm healthy again, Hernandez brings heat — and bravado

By JEFF PASSAN The Kansas City Star

PEORIA, Ariz. — Runelvys is back. He announces this in third person. He says this with authority. His eyes hide behind a pair of orange-lensed Oakleys. He doesn't want to give too much away.

Just that he's back. He repeats this twice, then three times, then four. He seems proud of this. It's been 19 months since his arm turned into a noodle. It's been a long time since he felt this good. Two years probably.

That's the level he believes he's back to. Throwing with fervor. Buzzing batters inside. Intimidating with heat and awing with off-speed stuff. He did this in April 2003, and he was the best pitcher in the American League.

On this afternoon, he threw 4 1/3 innings and gave up two earned runs. He looked decent. He felt unhittable. And that's always been one of the qualities the Royals love about Runelvys Hernandez, one of the reasons they stuck by the 26-year-old right-hander who to some looks like an All-Star and to others an immature kid: He loves himself.

“Sometimes they think I'm cocky,” Hernandez said. “I say I have a lot of confidence.”

Coming back from Tommy John surgery is the hardest thing to do in baseball. It requires a year simply to throw again and another year to amp up arm strength to its previous level. Hernandez last pitched Aug. 16, 2003.

Yet the Royals have no problem tossing him in their rotation this season — and as the starter for the home opener. They believe in Hernandez. They see him for what he can be. They hope they're right.

Because for a long time, even Runelvys didn't think he'd be back.


For the first four months after a doctor replaced the ligament in Hernandez's right elbow with a tendon, he couldn't look at his arm. It was atrophied, flaccid — pathetic compared with the cannon that fired fastballs.

He was alone and couldn't handle it.

“Every day I would see my scar. I'd stare at it,” Hernandez said. “And I don't want to be hurt again. It was hard. You lose a whole year, and you can't believe it. It's like starting over.”

Recovering from Tommy John surgery is as much a mental wringer as it is a physical challenge. Hernandez was angry that his arm hurt. He regretted that he waited so long to point out the pain. He doubted himself, his ability to do the necessary rehabilitation. He feared his major-league career would end just after it began.

Hernandez signed with the Royals in 1998 as an 18-year-old out of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. After three years with the Royals' team in the Dominican, he spent 2001 at Class A. In 2002, he started at A ball, jumped to Class AA and finished the season with the Royals. By 2003, he was the opening-day starter.

Improbable as it was, Hernandez's run continued as he won his first four decisions and finished April with a 1.36 earned-run average. Elbow troubles cropped up soon thereafter. Hernandez shook them off. Just a minor pain. Nothing to worry about.

Then his arm folded. Three bad starts, and he went on the disabled list once. Six starts after that, he landed on the DL again, this time for good. Surgery shelved him for the rest of the year. Early in 2004, he came to Surprise, Ariz., to start his rehabilitation at extended spring training.

Hernandez looked at his arm and cringed. This would be too much work, too much effort. He thought about his wife, Christina, and his sons, Runelvys Jr. and Griffen, and his parents, Vidal and Lucinda. He wouldn't see them for weeks, months at a time. He couldn't do this.

By that time, Hernandez had developed a reputation for being lazy. His 6-foot-1 frame carried around 250 pounds. He had big legs, yes. He had a big belly, too.

Because they couldn't work his arm, the Royals' trainers instead told Hernandez to run.

“So I ran,” Hernandez said. “And I kept running.”

Forrest Gump he wasn't. But Hernandez did jog for 60 consecutive minutes two days and ran shorter distances the rest of the week.

“They called me ‘La Maquina,' he said. “ ‘The Machine.' ”

He started throwing in the middle of the year, short distances, then long toss, then fastballs. Christina and the kids visited every so often. Hernandez's parents came up for a week. He made friends with the Latino rookies in camp. They hung out at the house he rented, and he cooked for them.

This offseason, he threw in the Dominican and kept running. While he came into camp still weighing around 250 pounds, he walked with the prance of a proud man. Hernandez never quit. His arm felt great. He felt as if he had grown up.

He certainly needed to.


It's not that Runelvys Hernandez is aloof. No. He's not snooty.

“Runelvys is Runelvys,” Royals pitcher Jose Lima said.

Which is to say, Hernandez is a handful. His reputation had improved because of how quickly he rehabbed his arm. Until, teammates said, he lollygagged through running drills this spring. Hernandez's former representative, agent Scott Boras, called Hernandez “greedy” years after they ended their relationship. Even general manager Allard Baird acknowledged that Hernandez “was lazy.”

The Royals stuck Lima's locker next to Hernandez's this spring. The team figured Lima, 32, an 11-year veteran and fellow Dominican, could teach Hernandez a thing or two.

“He listens to what he wants, hears who he wants,” Lima said. “He's got a lot to learn in this game. This is family now. We've got to stick together. You respect me, I respect you. He's young. He's learning. It's going to get to a point where he turns 30, and hopefully he'll realize people are trying to help him out instead of pointing a finger at him.

“I hope so. I hope it's not too late.”

Hernandez likes to say he has grown up. He thinks marriage and children have calmed him down. He said he is more concerned with team success than individual accolades.

“Years ago, I always worried about being a prospect, trying to do whatever I'd want,” Hernandez said. “I was wrong about that. It's like I'm back because of the way I've progressed. I'm growing a lot personally. I've got two kids to take care of.

“Money to me is a really good thing. It helps you to pay for the house, to take care of the kids. Whatever you need, it helps you and your family. Well, I love baseball more than money. It's like my kids — baseball is my kid, my family.”

Baird is convinced. He called Hernandez during rehab sessions to gauge his mind-set and keep him motivated. If he was lazy before, Baird said, Hernandez matured quickly.

“When you're down here in Arizona during the summer when it's 115 degrees and you're rehabbing to play catch, where the ball goes back and forth 10 times, there's a lot of intestinal fortitude,” Baird said. “There are no fans. You're working hard to be able to throw balls back and forth.”

He's throwing more now, throwing harder, throwing better, and that's why teammates can tolerate Runelvys being Runelvys. Lima is worried the act could wear thin eventually, that the gifted part of his body could have trouble catching up to the other.

Lima pointed to his right arm.

“Runelvys has got to take this,” he said, before moving his index finger toward his head, “up here.”


After announcing he was back, Runelvys looked across the Royals' small clubhouse and saw first baseman Mike Sweeney.

“We're going to be a champion,” Hernandez said.

“I know,” Sweeney said. “You'd better win 18.”

“I'm going to be there,” Hernandez said. “You know that.”

“You've got the stuff,” Sweeney said.

“Thank you, Papí,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez's most successful season was 2002. He won 13 games that year, nine of them in the minor leagues. That Sweeney drops the number 18 shows his faith in Hernandez — or false hope from the Royals.

“There's going to be some higher expectations than deserved,” Baird said. “I know what I expect out of him.”

Consistency, mainly. The Royals understand Hernandez could struggle. They want to support him. With Zack Greinke and Denny Bautista the projected aces of the future, Hernandez could make a dynamite No. 3 starter.

“He's tough, very tough,” Royals manager Tony Peña said. “He can be one of the best. Just in terms of ability and knowing what to do and knowing how to win and knowing how to pitch.”

Hernandez threw 80 pitches last week, the most since his surgery. His windup looked the same — a slight hitch before he follows through — and his mannerism of constantly pounding his glove hadn't changed.

With his stint finished, Hernandez walked past fans clamoring for his autograph at Peoria Stadium. One thing hasn't changed over the last 19 months: No one can pronounce his name. Somehow, he became “Runslip.”

Hernandez signed anyway. He's glad to be remembered.

“I think about my year, about our year,” Hernandez said. “I can't think for myself. We're a team. I want to think about my team. It's going to be a good year for all of us.”

Runelvys is back. For good. And for better or worse.

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Old 04-05-2005, 06:59 PM   #2
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Let's hope his attitude translates into a win tomorrow. I'm interested to see how he'll come back from the injury.
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