There is one man, though, who can break through. John Hernandez, Keith's 63-year-old father, has been the most influential and dominant presence in his son's life. He is the man who taught him to play the game. He is the man who has so pushed and ridden him that at times they are barely on speaking terms. Only John ever broke into the sanctuary.
Just this summer—after a bitter falling-out over a dispute that had nothing to do with his father's being on his back, the usual source of their conflicts—Hernandez became so distracted that he sank into a batting slump that lasted two months. Keith had bought his father a satellite dish so that he could watch him play all over the country, yet the very thought that his father was watching infuriated him.
"I knew he was watching and I couldn't stand him watching," Hernandez says. "I'd be in the on-deck circle and I'd be thinking about him. I'd get up to the plate and be thinking about him. I'd go oh for 4 and I'd say to myself, 'Sit there and squirm.' I called Gary and said, 'I can't stand him watching me play.' I didn't have the concentration. It's the one time something got in between me and my play, and he doesn't even know it. That's why my slump was so bad."
Their relationship is complex, as is often the case between a father and son, but theirs is one right out of The Great Santini
, filled with the sounds of clashing egos and the fury of resentments. John Hernandez, Juan to his son, is an obsessive and overbearing man who taught Keith how to hit and field, and the simple truth is that no one, no manager or batting instructor, knows the nuances of his swing half as well as his father does.
For years, John's understanding of Keith's stroke has been the tether that has kept these two men together. 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.
"It's a paradox," brother Gary says. "Keith wanted to feel he could stand up and do it on his own. By the same token, my dad gave Keith a real big advantage—an ace in the hole. For Keith not to use it, to go through the miseries of a slump when he could get out of it much sooner, was really ridiculous."
Ridiculous or not, Hernandez has tried over the years to cut the cord. "I've tried to pull away but he won't let me," says Keith. "We've had major falling-outs. I'd tell him, 'Dad, I'm a man. I don't want to be reliant on you for my career. Dad, I'm 28.... Dad, I'm 30.... Dad, I'm 31.... Dad, I'm 32; I'm a man.' There would be no conflicts ever if he wouldn't force his help. If he had said, 'Anytime you need me, I'm here,' things would have been much better."
But, no, says Keith. "It was, 'If you don't want to hear this advice, you'll hit .240 this year.' He wants to take credit. He's told me, 'You wouldn't have made it without me pushing you.' You mean to tell me that of all the professional athletes in the world, all of them had a father that pushed and pushed and pushed on them? I find that hard to believe."
This relationship with his father has been the central conflict in Keith Hernandez's life. "He's got a love-hate thing for me," John says. "He loves me, but he hates me for some of the things I've made him do. He wants to love me, but he wants to fight me. He has so much natural ability that he takes the easy way out. I would step on him for getting bored. I forced him. 'Put out!' I told him. People have said, 'Hey, you made Keith.' No, I didn't make him. You could take another kid and do the same thing with him and he wouldn't do a damn thing. He had the talent, so he could do it.... So many people have told him that I've made him, and that is just burning inside of him."
The love-hate thing, if that is what it is, developed long after the carefree days when John first put bats and gloves in his sons' hands. That was in the blue-collar town of Pacifica, a coastal community embraced by the San Bruno mountains some 20 miles south of San Francisco.