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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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Hernandez is not being critical of Gibson. "He was the old school," says Keith. "It just blew my mind. I swore after that year I would never do that to a rookie, and I've never given a rookie any crap my whole career. I go out of my way to help them."

Hernandez was hitting .250 for the Cards when they sent him back to Tulsa in June 1975. The St. Louis batting instructor, Harry (the Hat) Walker, had been asking him to hit every pitch to the opposite field, no matter where it was in the strike zone. John Hernandez had taught him to go with the pitch, to all fields, and now Keith could no longer pull the ball. Slumping, he was benched and finally sent back to Tulsa. There, manager Ken Boyer tried to help him regain his old stroke. He ended up hitting .330 in Tulsa, and that was it for minor league ball.

From 1976 to '79 Hernandez evolved into the complete ballplayer. But his development was far from a smooth sail. There were those damnable slumps, those calls to his father to ask what he was doing wrong, those periodic collapses of confidence. But there always seemed to be someone willing to push him and nudge him in the right direction. "I always had people there for me as I was coming up, because I always doubted myself," he says. "I still have my doubts. I've always needed someone to push me."

The year 1976 was pivotal in his life, both in and out of uniform. The nightmarish sense of aloneness that had hounded him in 1975 vanished when he got himself a roommate, pitcher Pete Falcone. And that was the year, at last, that he found himself a girlfriend, Sue Broecker, whom he first spotted sitting behind the dugout at a home game. He had a batboy pass her a note—"Something I'd never done in my career"—and they began a courtship that led to their marriage two years later.

When he was in a slump that year, veteran outfielder Willie Crawford forced him to take extra batting practice. "He made me come out every day," says Hernandez. "Made me! He said, 'You're not playing, you've got to hit to stay sharp.' " And Preston Gomez, the third base coach, forced him to take 20 minutes of ground balls a day. " Preston knew how to hit ground balls hard, where you had to stretch out. He improved my range by five feet. He made you go that extra half-step to get there."

And there was his father again, trying to help but pushing too hard and embarrassing his son. One day in Candlestick Park, Falcone looked from the dugout at Hernandez in the field and saw him waving his bare hand up and down by his face. "It was like he was waving at a bee hovering around his ear," Falcone says. Actually, Keith was signaling his father to be seated, please. John was in the stands, waving his arms to get Keith's attention so as to give him some advice. Keith later told him, "You look like you're waving planes in on an aircraft carrier. Sit down!"

With all the advice and help he was getting from all directions—everyone was always waiting for him to be the next Musial—he particularly cherished the counsel of Lou Brock. "My philosopher," Keith calls him. As a son of John Hernandez, Keith has long dwelled on the mechanics of his hitting stroke. When he would make an out, Hernandez would tell Brock something like, "Gee, my hands weren't right." To which Brock would reply, "Ah, shut up! I don't want to hear that. Keith, when you go to hit, there are only three factors involved: you, the pitcher and the ball. Once it's released, it's only you and the ball. It becomes the question of who's better, you or the ball."

Perhaps the most valuable message he heard from Brock was to take charge of the infield. "Be an agent of action," Brock would tell him. "Don't be an actor affected by events. When a pitcher looks over his shoulder at you, he's looking for a sign of strength. A nod. A fist. You're the first baseman. You're the last guy to hand the ball to the pitcher. Give him a sign of strength."

"I'm not comfortable doing that," Keith would tell him. "That's not me."

"You have to do it!" Brock would say. "Take charge!"

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