All of this hyperventilating came to a head in Keith's last game as a senior. He was just a few points shy of breaking a scoring record, but in the second half, the opposing team went into a full-court press. Keith wisely passed the ball off to the open men breaking for the basket. Capuchino won because Keith broke the press, though he fell just short of the record. He returned home smiling, until John, furious and upset, began berating his son, calling him "stupid" for not shooting and not breaking the record. Keith fled the room in tears.
That spring, the star first baseman for the Capuchino Mustangs quit the baseball team, with his father's support, after a dispute with the coach. That obviously spooked big league teams about his attitude, so the Cards were able to pick him up in the 40th round of the 1971 free-agent draft. When they showed little interest in signing him, Keith was ready to go to college. But that summer he tore up the Joe DiMaggio League, and the Cards went after him and signed him for $30,000. "Great coordination, a great stroke," says Bob Kennedy, then head of player development for St. Louis. "And he could really play defense. Very knowledgeable." At times the old man may have ridden Keith too hard, but he taught his son how to play the game.
Kennedy sped him through the farm system, and in 1974, his third season, when Keith was hitting .351 in Tulsa, he got the call to join the Cardinals. He batted .294 in 34 at bats and made the club to start the 1975 season. He was being hyped as the next Musial, a lefty with a sweet, fluid stroke. But he was suffering on and off the field.
Hernandez was filled with self-doubt about his playing, with all the insecurities of a rookie in the bigs. Away from the park he was extremely shy, often lonely, uncomfortable in crowds and wary of women. He had done the bar scene with the players since he hit the minors, and that had fostered in him a negative attitude toward women. Even today he tends to pull back when he begins to feel emotional intimacy in his relationships.
"One of the negatives of the game is that you're 18 and impressionable, and you have the veterans drinking in bars, and you meet night people," he says. "Ballplayers are night people. You meet people who hang out in pickup bars. You meet more undesirables than desirables. At that age, I think it makes a lasting impression. You're guarded, really guarded. I pulled away, but I wanted a good relationship. I wanted to be happy with one woman."
He had no one, so he lived alone in an apartment outside St. Louis, at times in despair. "I didn't like myself," Hernandez says. "I didn't like that I was a grown man and didn't talk to people, that I was afraid and so shy. Invariably I called Gary. I was a grown man, an adult, and couldn't socialize. Not just females. People in general. I would go to baseball functions, anywhere there were people, and I'd stand by myself and hope that nobody would talk to me. There were a lot of nights back in '75 when there was no one to go out with. I was the only single guy on the team. I was lonely, and I'd go home and cry because there was no one to go out with. At times it would just build up and build up: 'Why can't I meet somebody?' Brutal. I was miserable...a stranger in a strange land."
Just as bad, he was feeling no acceptance in the clubhouse. One day he was listening to a conversation between pitchers Bob Gibson and Al Hrabosky two lockers away, and he chimed in with a thought of his own. Gibson snapped at him: "Shut up, rookie! You're just a rookie. Speak when you're spoken to!"
Later that year, he was sitting at the end of the bench just before a game when Gibson, of all people, walked over and sat down right beside him. For seven straight innings, Gibson lectured Hernandez nonstop about baseball: "Now watch the pitcher. Pitchers have patterns and you can pick up patterns. Watch the lefthanded hitters and how a pitcher throws to them, how he works them. And know your catchers. They often call pitches that they can't hit themselves."
Gibson explained that if a catcher is a dead fastball hitter and he has trouble with the breaking ball, he may tend to call the breaking ball. If a catcher is a breaking ball hitter and has trouble with the fastball inside, he may tend to call the fastball in. And on and on it went, the great Gibson presiding.
"I was stunned," Keith says. "In the seventh inning I had to urinate, and he's in the middle of a sentence and I said, 'Bob, excuse me, let me go to the bathroom. Be right back.' I couldn't pee fast enough. I couldn't get back fast enough." Dashing back, he sat down, and Gibson glared and said, "Don't you ever get up when I'm talking to you! Don't you ever do that again! I'm sitting here trying to help you, and you get up and leave!"