April 26, 2006

A weighty presence
KC's hefty Hernandez shapes up, returns tonight

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star

Runelvys Hernandez was back, but this was no triumphant homecoming.

Tuesday, Hernandez returned to the Royals’ clubhouse for the first time since spring training. He refused to talk with reporters. If he talked at all, he said, it would be after his start tonight against the Twins. Then, he disappeared.

A year ago, Hernandez returned from Tommy John surgery on his right arm. He was brash, talking in the third person, still the Runelvys who wanted you to believe. He called himself confident, not cocky, and promised that he was back.

It was easy for Hernandez to return to the clubhouse after recovering from an injury, something clearly out of his control. It was much harder to come back on Tuesday, when his teammates weren’t as happy to see him, when they still didn’t understand how he spent the first three weeks of the season in Omaha instead of at the top of the Royals’ starting rotation.

Yes, Hernandez is back again, even though there was no way to know it other than the nameplate above his locker. The nameplate had Major League Baseball’s new motto inscribed on it: “I live for this.”

But after Hernandez failed to make the Royals’ opening-day roster because he was out of shape and not ready to throw more than 50 pitches, teammates were still wondering on Tuesday whether he does, in fact, live for this.

“If that happened to me, I’d be absolutely embarrassed,” Royals reliever Mike Wood said. “I would never let that happen to myself.”

In football, linemen lose their jobs because they’re overweight. It’s happened in basketball, too, with big men such as Oliver Miller and Stanley Roberts. In baseball, however, it’s just about unheard of, especially on the mound, where barrel-chested men like Fernando Valenzuela and now Bartolo Colon have succeeded.

Royals manager Buddy Bell acknowledged that Hernandez simply hit the breaking point with his weight. But the Royals say he’s done what they asked of him in Omaha, despite getting rocked in his three starts.

The Royals can barely recall that magical April of 2003, when Hernandez was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. And tonight, when he takes the mound for the first time this season, they’ll hold their breath. It’s all they can do.

“His eating habits have changed completely,” Royals general manager Allard Baird said. “That is what it was going to take. How you lose weight is less food in your mouth and more working out. In his case, it’s a lifestyle change.”

***

Larry Carter only knows the can’t-miss pitching prospect, the 205-pound Runelvys Hernandez. He doesn’t know the 280-pounder.

“What I remember was his competitiveness,” said Carter, who coached Hernandez in 2002. “He was very, very, very confident, and a lot of people called it overconfidence. But he believed in himself.”

Hernandez was 24 years old, and he was tired of waiting. He’d been in the Royals’ system since he was 18, and it was time.

“I’m going to pitch nine tonight,” he’d tell Carter before each start.

The way Carter remembers it, Hernandez practically did. He was with the Royals by the end of the year and was ordained the opening-day starter in 2003.

His idol growing up in the Dominican Republic was Pedro Martinez. He and Pedro both started opening day that year. Hernandez, basically a rookie, won his first four decisions and had a 1.36 ERA. The Royals were 17-7 at the end of April.

But Hernandez’s elbow began to hurt. He went on the disabled list for a few months and tried to come back, but he wasn’t the same. He finished the season with Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, which sidelined him for the entire 2004 season.

Last year, he expected to return to his April 2003 form but finished with an 8-14 record and 5.52 ERA. When he reared back, he didn’t have the 95-96 mph fastball anymore.

Then came the long offseason. Hernandez hasn’t talked publicly about how he gained the weight. His teammates claim they don’t know, either.

Hernandez, who is 6 feet 1, hovered around 250 pounds last season. He came to spring training weighing around 280. Hernandez’s stamina and command suffered, which mattered much more than the growing number on the scale.

“I’m sure if he was getting people out, he wouldn’t get sent down,” said Orel Hershiser, a former World Series MVP with the Dodgers and pitching coach with Texas. “If someone’s getting people out, they don’t care if they stand on their head and they weigh 500 pounds.”

Hershiser has noticed that pitchers are getting bigger, but he says that’s because they’re lifting weights, not eating more. He’s never heard of a pitcher being sent to the minors because of his weight.

Hershiser says the extra weight can help a pitcher sometimes, but it depends on the body type.

“You need to be strong enough to take it and put it in the direction you want to go and stay stable,” said Hershiser, who is now with ESPN as a baseball analyst. “Pitching is standing on one leg for a living. You’re never on two legs. You post up on your back leg and land on your front leg.”

The Royals put Hernandez in touch with a doctor to check his metabolism and put him on a healthier diet, then marked his name off the starting rotation. They would have to start the season without Zack Greinke and Hernandez, two of their top five starters entering camp.

“We were disappointed on both ends,” Wood said. “One day, Zack’s gone, and Runelvys wasn’t in shape. It was hard. We’ll see (today). I have no clue.”

***

Wood and fellow reliever Andrew Sisco monitor their weight daily. Sure, the team trainers check them once a week, but they don’t want to take any risks.

On Tuesday, Hernandez’s fellow pitchers were having trouble understanding how he didn’t get himself ready for opening day.

“Nobody in professional sports is born with a thyroid problem,” Sisco said. “Controlling your weight is one of those things, as players, that we can control. You can’t control what umpires say or what the other team does.

“It’s hard to see a guy we count on kind of let himself go. It’s one of those things that’s considerate to yourself, considerate to your club and your other teammates. Take care of yourself so you can be there playing every fifth day as a starter.”

Bell’s entire family has made a living being ready to play every day. He said he didn’t talk to Hernandez on Tuesday, adding, “We’ve had enough of those talks.”

“Hopefully” was the word of the day around the Royals’ clubhouse. They hope mostly that Hernandez has learned from the experience.

“I really hope for him and his family that he never has to go through what he went through this spring again,” Mike Sweeney said. “I’m sure it was a shot to his pride, and hopefully it’ll fuel a fire in his heart.”

Baird, who once referred to Hernandez as lazy, is happy with Hernandez’s work ethic. Baird says Hernandez has dropped the necessary weight faster than they had originally planned.

“It’s always easy for the skinny guys to say it’s easy to lose weight,” Baird said. “His wife has been a big help, but I think it still comes down to him.”

Hernandez didn’t get a team hug on Tuesday. He’s never been in the running for most beloved teammate, and after this spring, patience is wearing thin.

“I figured they’d try to run him back here as soon as they could,” Sisco said. “They have a lot of time invested in him. I hope he’s ready to help us win. The last thing we need is another problem to worry about.”

It’s been three years since Hernandez backed up his talk. Maybe it’s a good thing he isn’t talking.

To reach J. Brady McCollough, sports reporter for The Star, call (816) 234-4363 or send e-mail to jmccollough@kcstar.com.

 


J. Brady McCollough - jbrady@coveringsports.com (email) - 816-868-2621 (cell)