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HE'S STILL NOT HOME FREE
William Nack
October 13, 1986
The Mets' brilliant first baseman and team leader, Keith Hernandez, an indispensable man in the playoffs, must, as always, deal with doubts and demons and a love-hate relationship with his father
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October 13, 1986

He's Still Not Home Free

The Mets' brilliant first baseman and team leader, Keith Hernandez, an indispensable man in the playoffs, must, as always, deal with doubts and demons and a love-hate relationship with his father

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John's parents emigrated to America from Spain in 1907 and settled in San Francisco. John was a Depression child, and he grew up in the city channeling most of his energies toward baseball. He was a high school phenom as a first baseman. He hit .650 his senior year. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed him in 1940, for a $1,000 bonus, and he began his minor league career in Georgia. "An outstanding hitter," said Al Rosen, who played against him.

Whatever, the end came too quickly. He was at bat. The lights were bad in centerfield, and he lost sight of a pitch; he was beaned so badly that his eyesight was never the same. He played some baseball for the Navy in World War II—alongside Stan Musial, in fact—but gave it up shortly after the war. "It was a blow not being able to play again," John says.

He eventually joined the San Francisco fire department and moved with his wife, Jackie, to Pacifica. "It was a great place to grow up," Keith says. "Got home from school, cut through the fence and ran through the artichoke fields. There was love in my home. I have fond memories. Summers. Good weather and no school and a neighborhood of around 15 kids. We'd follow the creek back up to the mountains. Almost Huck Finn kind of stuff. And we played ball."

And played and played. Of course, John was the pusher and the shaker behind all this, determined to make his sons into ballplayers. "Baseball was like Dad's vocation," Gary says. "The fire department was something that put food on the table and paid the bills. His passion was baseball and teaching us to play it."

John Hernandez threw himself into it. In their garage he attached a rope to a ceiling beam and at the end of it tied a sock containing a tennis ball. He watched for hours as the two boys swung at it. John can still hear them whacking at that ball. "They'd swing, swing, swing," he says. "Bang, bang, bang. You could hear them all day long. When the sock wore out, I'd replace it. A jillion of them."

And there were all those days of batting practice. John threw the BP, teaching them the strike zone and how to hit to all fields. Now and then, he would pile the bats and gloves and balls in the car and announce, "We're gonna go hit!"

"Nah," Keith would say, "we don't wanna hit today."

And Dad would say, "Get your butts in the car. We're gonna hit!" Into the car they would go. John would spend hours hitting them ground balls and pop-ups at first base. They were going to be first basemen, just as he had been, by God! And then there were the baseball quizzes. "He gave us written tests," says Keith. "On situations. Thirty or 40 questions. I was eight years old when these started. He would write out situations and read them to us, and we had to answer where we'd be on the field, where the first baseman was supposed to be on the field at all times. On cutoffs. Double plays. I knew fundamentals when I was eight years old."

John made his wife a part of his private baseball school, too. At Little League games, Jackie was in charge of taking the home movies. These were not home movies to be enjoyed on a Sunday afternoon. No. "We'd get the film back and he would go over the swings," says Keith. "Fundamentally. Every at bat."

John immersed himself in his boys' athletic lives, particularly in Keith's. In Keith he saw early a potential major leaguer—the player that a high inside pitch out of those bad lights had kept him from becoming. Gary didn't have Keith's natural gifts, but he could play, too.

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