Former Chicago Cubs reliever and legend of the game Guillermo "Willie" Hernández died yesterday. The three-time All-Star was best known for his Cy Young and MVP Award-winning 1984 season with the Detroit Tigers, during which he also helped them reach the pinnacle of the sport with a World Series win. He was 69.
Although his best days weren't on the North Side, Hernández still was a sneaky valuable member of the Cubs throughout the late 70s and early 80s. Originally signed by the Phillies as an amateur free agent out of Puerto Rico in 1973, he'd get his first shot in the Majors when the Cubs selected him in the Rule 5 draft in 1976. He'd immediately make an impact in 1977, carrying a 3.03 ERA in 110 innings. Ahead of Bruce Sutter, who racked up 31 saves with a 1.34 ERA that season, he was the team's most effective setup man.
Hernández remained a solid, respectable member of the bullpen through the 1983 season, posting a 3.81 ERA as a Cub. Oddly enough, he even received eleven chances to start while with the team. They'd flip him back to the eventual National League champion Phillies in that final season, finally giving him a taste of postseason glory. He didn't give up a run in his first World Series performance, but he'd have to wait for his first ring as Philly fell to the Orioles in five games.
Hernández became a baseball legend after leaving the Chicago Cubs
1984 was a great year for the Cubs, but it was also a defining one for Hernández as he entered the history books. His first season in Detroit saw him post monster numbers - a 1.92 ERA in 140 1/3 innings with a career-high 32 saves. His AL Cy Young and MVP wins placed him in elite company with only Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley having claimed both honors in a season. He'd keep that success rolling into the postseason where he'd close out three of Detroit's five games with two saves en route to earning his first ring against the Padres.
The rest of Hernández's 13-year career saw him regress, but he remained an effective reliever for most of his final years. He did try to mount a comeback, but 1989 would be his last foray into baseball. His final stats, including a 3.38 ERA and 147 career saves, reflected exactly who he was as a player - a talented, steady reliever capable of reaching the very pinnacle of the sport.
Hernández's highs were so incredible that he earned serious respect from the great Sparky Anderson. The Hall of Fame manager not only vouched for him as the AL MVP but allegedly said "First, I thanked God. Then I thanked Hernandez..." when thinking back on the Puerto Rican lefty's importance to the 1984 World Series team.
In his later years, Hernández hung around the sport, attending events for the Cubs, Tigers, and Phillies when he could. He may not be best known for his work as a successful setup man in Chicago, but he earned a rightful spot in the team's, and baseball as a whole's, history. Our condolences go out to his friends and family.