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Changes their style the cuban's pitchers
What happened to his signature high leg kick? How come his knee did not touch his chin? Was this some sort of joke?

In deference to the bunion that becomes aggravated every time he takes his right heel off the ground, Hernández has altered his motion, marking the passing of one of baseballs iconic images. It is still him, the man known as El Duque, out there. But, in a way, it is not.

"If someone would have asked me when I was younger if I knew who Orlando Hernández was, I would have told them no," reliever Joe Smith said. "But if they had said El Duque, I would have said, 'Oh yeah, hes the guy with the high leg kick. "

It is as recognizable as Juan Marichals kick or Luis Tiants look at second base during his motion, as colorful as Dontrelle Williss corkscrew or Daisuke Matsuzakas hesitation. Abandoning it, even for the right reasons, is sort of like Rick Barry not shooting free throws underhanded: something just does not quite look right.

"Yeah, but if the result is that the ball goes in the hoop, it doesnt matter if he shoots it with his eyes closed and on one leg," reliever Matt Wise said.

That, in not so many words, is what Hernández and the Mets are trying to discern. Using a more conventional delivery for the first time against hitters Wednesday morning, Hernández threw 60 pitches in a three-inning simulated game. Afterward, his performance was vintage El Duque: Yes, Im feeling better. No, I dont feel pain. Yes, Im very happy.

What Hernández cannot tell, at least not yet, is how the change will affect his durability. Hernández said he was hoping to make 30 starts this season, which he has only done once, in 1999. It is also unclear if he can maintain the same level of deception as he did before, whether his array of arm angles and breaking pitches will be compromised. Manager Willie Randolph said he did not think it would be a problem, because Hernándezs kick came too early to provide a distraction. The pitching coach Rick Peterson agreed.

"Who knows?" Carlos Delgado said. "This may turn out to be more deceptive. With El Duque, you never know."

There is more room for improvisation in baseball than in other sports. Generally speaking, as long as a pitcher stays balanced and throws over his front knee, it does not matter whether he releases the ball by his waist (as Smith does), slings it like a whip (Aaron Heilman) or pitches from a low three-quarters position (Pedro Martínez).

"To me, his importance is getting people out," Randolph said, "even if thats what people think about when they think about El Duque."

Pitchers evolve. They have to if they want to continue succeeding at their craft. The only concession Hernández has made over the years is not kicking his leg as high as the man whose delivery he gaped at back when he was in Cuba: Dwight Gooden. In 1988, when Gooden was pitching for the Mets, Hernández saw a videotape of him pitching. He incorporated Goodens kick, his keeping his arms in tight, and also mixed in a little Marichal, Nolan Ryan and Tiant, too.

"When I saw them, I wanted to have my own style," Hernández said. "The Orlando Hernández style."

Asked if he knew it would work, he said: "I left Cuba in a small boat with a fan motor and never thought about that. Why would I think about this?"

Hernández does not concern himself with what others think of him, but the aura of mystery that he has cultivated " his mystique " stems from the unique motion. It is his most distinctive feature.

The true test will not come this spring but during the season, if he experiences a poor stretch. Who knows whether Hernández, who is as stubborn as a toothache, will resort to his more familiar motion. He is 42 years old and said last month that he was undecided about pitching another season. "Maybe if he gets plastic surgery, theyll recognize him," Peterson said.

Turning serious, he added: "I think hell have the same identity. Hell always be El Duque."


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