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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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"If I hadn't had Dad's help, I wouldn't have become the baseball player I was," says Gary, who won an athletic scholarship at the University of California at Berkeley, where he became an All-America first baseman. "I don't think I could have gotten an education at Berkeley without that help. I was never one to turn my back on any advice my father gave me. I handled that differently than Keith did. He went through growing pains, and I think Dad was a little tougher on my brother. He was too hard on Keith.

"Don't get me wrong, though. Dad was always family-oriented. You could hug and kiss him, and you knew he was always going to be there for you. He'd stick up for you, not let you down."

But whereas Gary was outgoing, sociable and, in his father's words, "happy-go-lucky," Keith was intense, hyper, introverted and driven to succeed, even as a youngster. "He wanted it," John says. "He wanted it bad. I told him, 'If you want it that bad, I'm gonna teach you.' "

The thing about Keith, too, was that he was so sensitive and easy to hurt, prone to nightmares. "He'd wake up screaming," John says. "We'd try to calm him and he'd go 'No! No! No!' He told us later on that everything was moving fast and we were bigger than what we were and everything around the room was big. You could hardly wake him up. He had the fear of God in his eyes."

In contrast, his dad was tough and intimidating—from the old school of very hard knocks. John recalls the day when Keith came running up to the front door screaming that a neighborhood bully was after him. "Let me in!" Keith said. " Wayne's beating up on me!" His father opened the door and scolded him: "If you don't go out there and fight back, you can't come in the house anymore!"

John then slammed the door in Keith's face.

Like any son, Keith sought approval from his father, and it wounded him when he did not get it. Sitting in his den one evening last month, a reflective John Hernandez said, "Keith had that little inferiority complex, and I think he feared he would disappoint me. He thought I would never be satisfied with him."

And no wonder. When Keith was 13, his father thought he saw his son quit on the field, and when the ball game was over, he screamed at him: "Listen, don't you ever quit like that again! I don't care if you strike out 5,000 times! I don't want you to quit!" Keith was so shaken by the tirade that he went home, in tears, in the car of someone else's father. In another game, he went 2 for 3 at the plate, but his father chewed him out in front of several people: "You can't be a ballplayer the way you're hitting! You've got to come back on the ball and rock into it! All you were doing is hitting the damn ball!"

He drove his son. "Sure, I drove him," said John. "You can put that in the magazine. Put it down. That wouldn't bother me." [John Hernandez, however, did not want his picture in the magazine. He refused to pose.—Ed.]

The Hernandezes moved from Pacifica to the nearby town of Millbrae when Keith was a sophomore. At Capuchino High, a school steeped in athletic tradition, Hernandez starred as a quarterback in football, a ball-hawking guard in basketball and, of course, a first baseman in baseball. Thinking that Keith the basketball player was passing off too much, John once got so furious that he told him, "If you don't take 18 shots a game, you come in here and I'll kick you right in the butt! They're making an ass out of you out there." Keith didn't see it that way and kept dishing off to the open man. So, there was John, screaming in the gym at his son, "Keith, don't be a fool! Shoot!" John regrets this now. "I agree it's wrong. I could not control myself. Jackie was embarrassed. I embarrassed Keith."

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