New York’s Met: A Fan’s Notes on Keith Hernandez
April 7, 1987
It is morning in the clubhouse at Huggins-Stengel Field in St. Petersburg and Keith Hernandez is moving from locker to locker, handing out schedules. He is the player rep of the world champion New York Mets; this is one of his duties. Still dressed in street clothes and sneakers, he says little as he hands the sheets to each of the players. At 33, he is young in the world of ordinary men; in baseball, especially on this young ball club, he is middle-aged. Kids and veterans nod and study the mimeographed sheets, which tell them when the bus will leave for the afternoon game and how many tickets they can expect for wives and friends. Hernandez says little; he was out late the night before with a woman down from New York. “Too much goddamned wine,” he says. And besides, he has been here before, through 13 major league seasons; this is a time for ease, the careful steady retrieval of the skills of the summer game.
“It’s all about getting back in a kind of groove,” Hernandez says. “Not about getting in shape. Most of the guys are in shape, or they get in shape before coming down. I worked out with weights all winter, the first time I ever did that, ’cause I’m getting old.” He smiles, shakes his head. “At the Vertical Club in New York. Jesus, don’t go there at five o’clock. It’s fucking insane, a social — No, this is about getting your stroke right. About getting back your concentration. I don’t worry about it much until the last 10 games before the season starts. If I’m having trouble then, then I worry.”
In the clubhouse, Hernandez wanders among those who have made it to The Show and those who desperately want to. They all move with that coiled and practiced indolence that is unique to baseball, the style of a game where the most exciting action seems to explode out of the greatest calm. A large table is spread with food; there are boxes of Dubble Bubble and sugarless gum. Some players nibble as they dress; others knead and work new gloves, bad-mouth each other, talk about women, read newspapers and sports magazines, all the while stripping off street clothes and pulling on jocks and T-shirts and uniforms.
Kevin McReynolds, new to the team after a winter trade from San Diego, stares into space. Darryl Strawberry isn’t here yet (two weeks before the great alarm clock rhubarb); neither is Dwight Gooden. Hernandez leaves the mimeographed sheets on the small benches in front of their lockers and moves on. When he’s finished, he dumps the leftovers in a trash can, sits down at his own locker, lights a Winston and reaches for the New York Times crossword puzzle.
“We’ll talk later,” he says, takes a drag, and stares at the puzzle while unbuttoning his shirt. Hernandez examines the words the way fans examine stats. His own stats are, of course, extraordinary. One of the most consistent hitters in the game, in three full seasons as a Met, he has averaged .311, .309, and .310. Against left-handed pitching last year, he hit .312; against right-handers, .309. He hit .310 at home and .311 on the road. Last year, he had 13 game-winning RBIs, and his career total of 107 is the most in National League history.
It seemed that every time you looked up last season, Hernandez was on base; this wasn’t an illusion; he tied with Tim Raines for the lead in on-base percentage (.413), with 94 walks added to 171 hits. Although he has never been much of a power hitter (his career high was 16 home runs for the Cardinals in 1980), when there are men on base there is nobody you’d rather have at bat. “I can’t stand leading off an inning,” he says. “It’s so goddamned boring.” Hernandez hit safely in 10 of the 13 postseason games. That’s what he’s paid to do. “Keith is the kind of consistent clutch hitter who relies on ‘big’ RBI production as compared with ‘multi’ RBI production,” says the astute Mets announcer Tim McCarver in the new book he wrote with Ray Robinson, Oh, Baby, I Love It! “As an example, a lot of one-run games are won by key hits in the middle innings rather than by big three-run home runs late in the game. Keith is a spectacular middle-inning hitter… You’ve heard the baseball adage, ‘Keep ’em close, I’ll think of something’? Well, the something the Mets think of is usually Keith Hernandez.”
The fielding stats are even more extraordinary. Last year, he won his ninth straight Gold Glove Award at first base — the most of any player in history — with only five errors in the season, for a .996 average. Those stats don’t even begin to tell the story of what Hernandez does on the field; like all great glove men, he makes difficult plays look easy. But more important, Hernandez can still dazzle you with the play that follows no rule. In the 12th inning of a game with Cincinnati last July 22, the Reds had runners on first and second with none out. Carl Willis dropped a splendid bunt down the third base line, and suddenly, there was Keith, all the way over from first. He threw to Gary Carter, who was playing third and Carter went back to first for the double play. The Mets won 6-3 in the 14th inning. McCarver, who calls Hernandez “the Baryshnikov of first basemen,” writes: “Baseball is a game where, if you do the routine things spectacularly, you win more games than doing the spectacular things routinely — because few athletes have the talent to do spectacular things routinely. Keith has that kind of talent.”
In spring training, of course, all players spend their mornings doing the routine things routinely. And on this day, after the cigarette and the crossword, Hernandez is suited up. He makes a quick visit to the john. And then he joins the other players as they move out onto the field. To a visitor who believes the phrase “spring training” is the loveliest in the American language, the view is suddenly beautiful, the bright blue and orange of the Mets’ uniforms instantly transforming the great sward of fresh green grass.
After more than 130 days without baseball, it’s beginning again. The wan sun abruptly breaks through the clouds and the young men jog out to the far reaches of the outfield and then back. They line up in rows, and then an instructor leads them through 15 minutes of stretching exercises. There is something wonderfully appealing about the clumsiness of the players during this drill; thrown out of their accustomed positions and stances, they don’t look like professional athletes at all. Instead, the field now looks like part of some peculiar kind of boot camp, stocked with raw recruits. Jesse Orosco glances at Doug Sisk to see if he’s doing the exercise correctly; Lenny Dykstra says something to Carter, who laughs; Backman does a push-up when the others are twisting through sit-ups. Hernandez leads with his left leg when everyone else is leading with the right. You can see more athletic workouts at the New York Health & Racquet Club.
But then it’s over and they’re all up and reaching for gloves. The players pair off, playing catch, loosening up, while the sun begins to dry the wet grass. Hernandez is throwing with Roger McDowell. The ease and grace and economy of movement are obvious; it’s as if he is on a morning stroll. He chatters away with other players (as he does with opposing players who reach first base during the season, a tactical matter that is less about conviviality than it is about distracting the enemy). Dykstra slides a package of Red Man from his hip pocket and bites off a chunk and Hernandez says something we can’t hear and Dykstra tries to laugh with his mouth shut. On the sidelines, Davey Johnson has emerged to watch his charges. His coaches — Buddy Harrelson, Bill Robinson, Vern Hoscheit, Sam Perlozzo, and Mel Stottlemyre — are on the side, glancing indifferently at the players, talking about famous assholes they’ve known. The list is fairly long and each new name brings a guffaw and a story. Harrelson turns to a visitor and says, “That’s all off the record.” And laughs. On the field, Hernandez is working out of a pitcher’s windup. He throws a strike. “You think Mex can make this team?” Perlozzo says. Stottlemyre smiles. “He already did.”
Then the players amble over to the batting cage, where Perlozzo will be throwing. There’s a wire fence beside the cage and fans have assembled behind it, some wearing Mets jackets, caps, and T-shirts. A few are old, the stereotypical snowbirds of spring training; but more are young. They’ve arranged vacations to come down to see the ballplayers. A few are screaming for autographs. Hernandez waits to bat, says, “Jesus Christ, listen to them…” The kids among them seem in awe, and are not screaming. “These are supposed to be grown-ups.” Two of the middle-aged fans are waving baseballs to be signed. I mention to Hernandez what Warren Spahn had said at a banquet the night before in St. Petersburg: “Baseballs were never meant to be written on. Kids ought to play with ’em. They ought to throw ’em, hit ’em. I hope someday they develop a cover you can’t write on.” Hernandez says, “Ain’t that the truth.”
But the fans are persistent and I remember waiting outside Ebbets Field with my brother Tom one late afternoon long ago and seeing Carl Furillo come out, dressed in a sports shirt. His arms looked like the thickest, most powerful arms in the known universe. I wanted to ask him for an autograph but didn’t know how; a mob of other kids chased after him and he got in a car with Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, and I wondered how he had ever been able to sign the petition at spring training in 1947 saying he couldn’t play with a black man. Years later, I learned that Leo Durocher told the protesting players (Dixie Walker, Hugh Casey, Kirby Higbe, Bobby Bragan, Furillo, among others) to go and “wipe your ass” with the petition. Durocher was the manager and Robinson was on the team and there was nothing else to say except play ball. Standing at the batting cage, while Hernandez took his swings and the fans demanded to be authenticated with signatures, I realized again how much of the adult response to baseball is about the accretion of memory and the passage of time.
“Christ, I hate spring training,” Hernandez said at one point. “It’s so goddamned boring.”
But for the rest of us, spring training is something else: the true beginning of the year, a kind of preliminary to the summer festival, another irreversible mark in time. On the field and in the clubhouse, kid players come over to Hernandez. “Hey, Mex, lemme ask you something…” They are talking to him about the present and the future. But we who don’t play also see the past; it helps us measure accomplishment, skill, potential. Don Mattingly is another Musial; Wally Backman is another Eddie Stanky. At spring training, somewhere in the Florida afternoons, we always hear the voice of Red Barber and know that in a few weeks we’ll be playing the Reds at Crosley Field and the Cardinals in Sportsman’s Park and we could lose one in the late innings if that goddamned Slaughter lifts one over the pavilion roof. This is not mere sentiment; it’s history and lore, part of the baggage of New York memory.
New Yorkers don’t easily accept ballplayers. They almost always come from somewhere else, itinerants and mercenaries, and most of them are rejected. We look at Darryl Strawberry and unfairly compare him to Snider, DiMaggio, Mays, Mantle. We question his desire, his heart, his willingness under pressure to risk everything in one joyful and explosive moment. Since he is young, we reserve judgment, but after four seasons, he still seems a stranger in the town. Those who are accepted seem to have been part of New York forever. Hernandez is one of them.
He was born on October 20; 1953, in San Francisco. Although his teammates call him Mex, he isn’t Mexican at all. His grandparents on his father’s side immigrated from Spain in 1907; his mother’s side is Scotch-Irish. Keith’s father, John, was a fine high school player (hitting .650 in his senior year) and was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers for a $1000 bonus in 1940. According to William Nack in Sports Illustrated, John Hernandez was badly beaned in a minor league night game just before the war; his eyesight was ruined, and though he played with Musial and others in some Navy games, when the war was over, John Hernandez knew he couldn’t play again. He became a San Francisco fireman, moved to suburban Pacifica, and started the process of turning his sons, Gary and Keith, into the ballplayers he could never be. They swung at a balled-up sock attached to a rope in the barn; both playing first base, they learned to field ground balls, thousands of ground balls, millions.
From the time Keith was eight, he and his brother were given baseball quizzes, questions about tactics and strategy, the fundamentals. His mother, Jackie, took home movies at Little League games, and they would be carefully studied, analyzed for flaws. John Hernandez was not the first American father to do such things; he will not be the last. But he did the job well. Perhaps too well.
“My father taught me how to hit,” Keith says. “He made us swing straight at the ball, not to undercut it, golf it. A straight swing, an even stroke. He really knew.”
But Nack, and other writers, have described the relationship of father and son as a mixed blessing. In brief, John Hernandez is said to be unable to leave his son alone; Keith is one of the finest players in the game, an acknowledged leader of a splendid world championship team, the father of three daughters of his own; but too often, his father still treats him as if he were the kid behind the barn, learning to hit the slider. When Keith goes into a slump (and he has one almost every year, usually in midseason), his father is on the phone with advice. As Nack wrote, “Keith knows that no one can help him out of a slump as quickly as his father can, and so, throughout his career, he has often turned to his father for help. At the same time, he has felt the compelling need to break away from his father and make it on his own, to be his own man.”
Obviously it would be a mistake to think that Keith Hernandez is the mere creation of his father. His brother, Gary, was trained the same way, went to Berkeley on an athletic scholarship, but didn’t make it to the majors. Keith had his own drive, his own vision. At Capuchino High (where he hit .500 one season), he also starred on the football and basketball teams, and says that football was particularly good training. “I was a quarterback, and I had to make choices all the time, to move guys around, read the other teams’ defenses. But I was 5-11, 175 pounds then and that was too small, even for college. I went down to Stanford for a tryout, saw the size of these guys, and decided baseball was for me.”
Major league scouts were watching him in high school, but in his senior year he quit the team after an argument with the manager. Most of the scouts vanished. Until then, it had been expected that Keith would be a first-round draft pick in the June 1971 free agent draft; instead, he was chosen by the Cardinals in the 40th round. He had always been a fairly good student, and was accepted at Berkeley, but when the Cardinals offered a $30,000 bonus, he decided to head for professional ball.
There are hundreds of stories about minor league phenoms who burn up the leagues and fizzle in the majors; Hernandez had the opposite experience. He has always hit better for average in the majors than he did starting out in A ball at St. Petersburg in 1972 (.256) or AAA ball at Tulsa in the same year (.241). He found his groove in Tulsa in ’73 and ’74, and was brought up for 14 games in St. Louis in 1974. He hit .294 in those games, was soon being described as the next Musial, started the 1975 season at first, couldn’t get going, was sent down again, and brought up again the following year, this time to stay.
That first full year with the Cardinals, he hit .289, the next year .291. Still, he didn’t feel secure. In 1978, the year he met and married Sue Broecker, he slumped to .255. “I didn’t feel I was really here until ’79,” he says. That year, he hit .344, with a career-high 210 hits. He won the batting championship, and shared the Most Valuable Player award with Willie Stargell, who hit .281.
“Yeah, you get better,” he said one afternoon in St. Petersburg. “You know more. You watch, you see, you learn. You know something about pacing yourself too. One of the most important things about the minors is learning how to play every day. In high school, college ball, you play maybe twice a week. You don’t know what it’s like to do it day in and day out… In the majors, you’re seeing guys over and over. You look at a guy like Steve Carlton for 11 or 12 years. You know how hard he throws, you know how his breaking ball is, you know how he likes to pitch you. And you know the catchers too, how they see you, what kind of game they like to call.”
Hernandez is one of those players who seems totally involved in the game. On deck, his concentration is ferocious. After an at-bat, including those in which he fails (“a great hitter, a guy who hits .300, fails seven out of 10 times”), he is passing on information about pitchers.
“I look for patterns,” he says. “I usually only look at the way a pitcher pitches to left-handed hitters. I don’t pay much attention to the right-handed hitters. What does he like to do when he’s in trouble? Does he go to the breaking ball, or the fastball, does he like to come in or stay away? I look for what you can do to hurt him. There are very few pitchers that are patternless. Of course, there are a few guys — Seaver, Don Sutton — who don’t have a pattern. They pitch you different every time. That’s why they have 500 wins between them, why they’re future Hall of Famers.”
Hernandez is known as a generous player; he will talk about hitting with anyone on the team “except pitchers, ’cause they might get traded.” Pitchers themselves are a notoriously strange breed (a player once described his team as being made up of blacks, whites, and pitchers), and though Hernandez is friendly with all of them, and was amazingly valuable to the young Mets staff in the 1984 season (Gary Carter didn’t arrive until ’85), he still maintains a certain distance.
“Most pitchers… can’t relate to hitting because they can’t hit, they’ve never hit. They don’t know how. And there’s very few that know how to pitch. But it’s not so simple. Some guys you can hit off, some you can’t. I was always successful against Carlton, and he was a great pitcher. And then there’s some sub-.500 pitcher, and you can’t get a hit off him. It’s one of the inexplicable mysteries of baseball.”
Hernandez clearly loves talking about the craft of baseball. But there are some subjects he won’t discuss. One is his ruined marriage to Sue Broecker. There have been various blurry published reports about this messy soap opera. How Keith played around a lot after the marriage, particularly on the road. How they broke up after the All-Star game in 1980, then reconciled and had a baby. How Keith liked his booze after games, and later started dabbling with cocaine. She got fed up, one version goes, and then demanded most of his $1.7 million a year salary as reparations. In my experience, the truth about anybody else’s marriage is unknowable; thousands struggle to understand their own.
Hernandez, by all accounts, loves his children; he dotes on them when he is with them, even took a few days out of spring training to take them to Disney World. Marriages end; responsibility does not. Hernandez says that he would like to marry again someday and raise a family, but not until he’s finished with baseball. One sign of maturity is the realization that you can’t have everything.
He also won’t discuss cocaine anymore. At one point, he told writer Joe Klein what it was like around the major leagues in the late ’70s. “All of a sudden, it was everywhere. In the past, you might be in a bar and someone would say, ‘Hey, Keith, wanna smoke a joint?’ Now it was ‘Wanna do a line?’ People I’d never met before were offering; people I didn’t know. Everywhere you went. It was like a wave: it came, and then people began to realize that cocaine could really hurt you, and they stopped.”
Nobody has ever disputed Hernandez’s claim that his cocaine use was strictly recreational; he never had to go into treatment (as teammate Lonnie Smith did); his stats remained consistent. But when Hernandez was traded to the Mets in June 1983 for Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey, the whispering was all over baseball. Cards manager Whitey Herzog would not have traded Hernandez for such mediocre players if the first baseman didn’t have some monstrous drug problem. It didn’t matter that Hernandez almost immediately transformed the Mets into a contender, giving them a professional core, setting an example for younger players, inspiring some of the older men. The whispering went on.
Then, deep into the 1985 season, Hernandez joined the list of professional ballplayers who testified in the Curtis Strong case in Pittsburgh, and the whole thing blew open. In his testimony, Hernandez described cocaine as a demon that got into him, but that was now gone; he had stopped well before the trade to the Mets. He wasn’t the only player named in the Strong case, but he seemed to get most of the ink. When he rejoined the team the next day in Los Angeles, he did the only thing he knew how to do: he went five for five.
When the Mets finally came home to Shea Stadium, Hernandez was given a prolonged standing ovation during his first at-bat. It was as if the fans were telling him that all doubt was now removed: he was a New Yorker forever. Flawed. Imperfect. Capable of folly. But a man who had risen above bis own mistakes to keep on doing what he does best. That standing ovation outraged some of the older writers and fans but it moved Hernandez almost to tears. He had to step out of the box to compose himself. Then he singled to left.
Last spring, as Hernandez was getting ready for the new season, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth made his decision about punishing the players who had testified in the Strong case. Hernandez was to pay a fine of 10 per cent of his salary (roughly $180,000, to be donated to charity), submit to periodic drug testing, and do 100 hours of community service in each of the next two years. Most of the affected players immediately agreed; Hernandez did not. He objected strongly to being placed in Group 1, those players who “in some fashion facilitated the distribution of drugs in baseball.” In the new afterword to his book If at First… Hernandez insists: “I never sold drugs or dealt in drugs and didn’t want that incorrect label for the rest of my life.”
There were some obvious constitutional questions. (Hernandez and the other players were given grants of immunity, testified openly, and were punished anyway — by the baseball commissioner — even though they had the absolute right to plead the Fifth Amendment in the first place.) There was also something inherently unfair about punishing a man who came clean. Hernandez threatened to file a grievance, conferred with friends, lawyers, his brother. After a week of the resulting media shitstorm, Hernandez reluctantly agreed to comply, still saying firmly, “The only person hurt was myself.”
Last year, he took a certain amount of abuse. A group of Chicago fans showed up with dollar bills shoved up their noses. Many Cardinal fans, stirred up by the local press, were unforgiving. And I remember being at one game at Shea Stadium, where a leather-lunged guy behind me kept yelling at Hernandez, “Hit it down da white line, Keith. Hit it down da white line.” Still, Hernandez refused to grovel, plead for forgiveness, appear on the Jimmy Swaggart show, or kiss anyone’s ass. He just played baseball. The Mets won the division, the playoffs, and the World Series, and they couldn’t have done it without him. When The New York Times did a roundup piece a few weeks ago about how the players in the Pittsburgh case had done their community service, Hernandez was the only ballplayer to refuse an interview. His attitude is clear: I did it, it’s over, let’s move on. He plays as hard as he can (slowed these days by bad ankles that get worse on Astroturf) and must know that the Drug Thing might prevent him from ever managing in the major leagues — and could even keep him out of the Hall of Fame.
“I like playing ball,” he says. “That’s where I’m almost always happy.”
Now it’s the spring and everything lies before him. The sports pages are full of questions: what’s the matter with Gooden and why isn’t Dykstra hitting and will the loss of Ray Knight change everything and why does McReynolds look so out to lunch. Nobody writes much about Hernandez; his career and his style don’t provoke many questions. He will tell you that he thinks Don Mattingly is “the best player in the game today,” but admits that he seldom watches American League games and isn’t even interested in playing American League teams in spring. The next day, for example, the Mets are scheduled to play the Blue Jays in nearby Dunedin. “I’d rather not even go,” says Hernandez. “It’s a shit park and we’re never gonna play these guys, so why?”
In the clubhouse, nothing even vaguely resembles a headline; Hernandez does talk in an irritated way about Strawberry, as if the sight of such natural gifts being inadequately used causes him a kind of aesthetic anger. “Last year, he finally learned how to separate his offense from his defense and that’s a major improvement,” Hernandez says. “Before, if he wasn’t hitting, he’d let it affect his fielding. Not last year.”
His locker is at the opposite end of the clubhouse from that of Gary Carter, who is the other leader of the club. I’m told that some players are Carter men, some Hernandez men. There could not be a greater difference in style. Carter is Mister Good Guy America, right out of the wholesome Steve Garvey mold. You can imagine him as a Los Angeles Dodger — but not a Brooklyn Dodger. He smiles most of the time and even his teeth seem to have muscles; he radiates fair-haired good health; if a demon has ever entered him, he shows no signs of the visit.
You can see Carter on a horse, or kicking up dust with a Bronco on some western backcountry road or strolling toward you on the beach at Malibu. Hernandez is dark, reflective, analytical, urban. Through the winter, you see him around the saloons of the city, sometimes with friends like Phil McConkey of the Giants, other times with beautiful women. His clothes are carefully cut. He reads books, loves history, buys art for his apartment on the East Side. Carter is the king of the triumphant high-fives; Hernandez seems embarrassed by them. In a crisis, Carter might get down on a knee and have a prayer meeting; Hernandez advocates a good drunk. Between innings, Carter gives out with the rah-rah on the bench; Hernandez is in the runway smoking a cigarette.
They are friendly, of course, in the casual way that men on the same team are friendly. But it’s hard to imagine them wandering together through the night. Hernandez speaks about his personal loneliness and fear; Carter smiles through defeat and promises to be better tomorrow. Both are winners. In some odd way, they were forever joined, forever separated, during the Greatest Game Ever Played (well, one of them): the 6th playoff game against Houston. In the 14th inning, Billy Hatcher hit a home run off Jesse Orosco to tie the game. There was a hurried conference on the mound. Hernandez later said he told Carter, “If you call another fastball, I’ll fight you right here.” Carter insists that the words were never uttered, telling Mark Ribowsky of Inside Sports: “Keith never said that, he just told the press that he did out of the tension of the game. I call the pitches and I decided not to throw anything after that but Jesse’s slider, his best pitch. Let’s get that straight once and for all.”
That was last season. This is the new season, and in the cool mornings of the Florida spring, they are all still thousands of pitches away from the fierce tests of August, the terrors of September. There will be crises, dramas, lights, slumps, failures, disappointments, along with giddy joyous triumphs. There are perils up ahead. The Cardinals might get themselves together again; the Phillies had a great second half last year and could come on strong. When you’re a champion, you have to defend what you’ve won. But for now, they are all months away from discussions of such arcane phenomena as the All Important Loss Column. Up ahead lies the season of the summer game and it remains a mystery, a maybe, a perhaps.
On another morning, Hernandez was waiting to take his swings, 10 hits apiece, and two young women were standing behind the fence, chewing gum. “They’ve gotta be from New York,” Keith said. “Every girl in New York chews gum. Everywhere. All the time. In restaurants. In bed. Drives me crazy.” He laughs. He looks at a foam rubber pad he wears in BP to protect his left thumb, which was hurt when Vida Blue jammed him in a game years ago. Then he steps in and takes his swings, the straight level strokes his father taught him, always making contact, intense in his concentration. That day, he wasn’t playing in the team game, and the field was almost empty. When he was finished hitting, he and Backman helped pick up all the balls and handed them to Perlozzo. Dave Magadan was ready to hit. Hernandez leaned down and touched his toes. “I’d like to go back to bed,” he said. “But I can’t do that anymore. I’m getting old…”
With that he walked out onto the empty field, and then began to jog easily and gracefully through the lumpy grass, and then to run, out around the edges of the field, under the palm trees beside the fence, a lone small figure in a lush and verdant place.