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Callup to Rays meant better life for catcher Hernandez, family

Catcher Michel Hernandez, brought up to the Rays in early September, now can stay with his family in Tampa and afford the medical expenses for his diabetes-stricken son.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Catcher Michel Hernandez, brought up to the Rays in early September, now can stay with his family in Tampa and afford the medical expenses for his diabetes-stricken son.

ST. PETERSBURG

Most days, backup catcher Michel Hernandez moves quietly about the Tampa Bay Rays locker room, easily overlooked in the avalanche of media attention on his teammates.

Yet in a season of amazing stories for the Rays, the longtime minor-leaguer is one of them.

It's not because of anything he has done with the team in less than a month with it. It's how he finally got there — and the way his life instantly changed.

The Rays called up the 30-year-old journeyman from Durham in early September when Shawn Riggans, the backup to starting catcher Dioner Navarro, was deactivated with an infected knee. The move hardly made a ripple of news.

But it meant a world of difference to Hernandez, his wife, Marta, and young son, Michael.

"For me, this is a dream," the native of Havana, Cuba, says with a smile, sitting by his locker.

Getting promoted from Triple-A obscurity to the majors in time to be part of a historic playoff run would be plenty for most players. But for Hernandez, there's so much more to the story.

For starters, he was on the verge of looking for work as an electrician, the profession he learned in Cuba. Hernandez needed to find a way to afford the mounting medical costs for Michael, 5, who last year was diagnosed with Type I diabetes.

While Hernandez hoped for a break in Durham — his most recent stop during some 10 years in the minors — Marta remained in their adopted home city of Tampa caring for Michael.

Then the Rays called. "When my manager told me, I couldn't believe it," he said.

Suddenly, Hernandez could move back home to his wife and son, instead of having to talk by cell phone from some town on the minor-league map.

And now he can simply drive to work each day — and still be able to take Michael to kindergarten in the morning and tuck him in bed at night.

Best of all, he no longer has to worry about how he'll afford the mounting medical costs related to Michael's daily care. His major-league insurance plan and salary is a vast improvement over the minor-league plan and pay, which barely offset expenses.

"The insurance helps," he said. "Things are under control."

For Marta, the recent developments are a huge relief — in part because she had been taking care of Michael by herself, including the six insulin shots per day.

"It has been hard, because I could not go with my husband when the season started," she said. "I stay home to take care of Michael 24/7. Now, I can sleep in a little bit and Michel takes Michael to school.

"You have no idea. When Michael sees his father leave for work in the morning, he says, 'Daddy, are you coming home tonight?' And now Michel can say, 'Yes, I'm coming home.' It is such a blessing."

Hernandez and his wife know what it feels like to leave home. In 1996, he and four teammates slipped away from their Cuban baseball team at a stadium in Mexico — and never looked back.

Marta waited for him for three months in Venezuela, hearing from him only once, unsure how they would be reunited. Finally, Hernandez made his way there, but there was another hurdle to surmount. She had to retrieve their passports from the Cuban consulate. In the end, she says an official gave her only minutes to get them and leave the grounds, or both would be sent back to Cuba. "I got them and ran as fast as I could," she said.

Soon after, they moved to Tampa and Michel, known for his strong arm and steady bat, began a new career. He spent six years in the Yankees' system, playing five games in the majors in 2003. He was claimed by the Red Sox off waivers in 2004, then bounced through farm clubs of the Phillies, Padres and Pirates.

Pittsburgh assigned him to Triple-A Indianapolis in 2007, trading him to the Rays for cash on Aug. 31. Barely a week later, he was part of a memorable ride.

"We're so happy to have him," first baseman Carlos Pena said. "He's got a great personality and he helps us out a lot. And believe me, not only can he catch; he can swing the bat."

Navarro, who crossed paths with Hernandez with the Yankees, agrees. "After so many years battling in the minors, now he's got a chance," he said. "It's a dream come true."

For a ballplayer — and for a husband, wife and little boy.

Callup to Rays meant better life for catcher Hernandez, family 10/07/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 9, 2008 10:10am]
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