The teachings of Brock eventually sank in, but it took time. After hitting .291 with 91 RBIs in 1977, he got off to a fast start in '78—he was hitting .330 at the All-Star break. But he promptly went into a swoon that left him with a .255 average by season's end. "I don't know what happened," he says. "I fell apart."
At the beginning of 1979, his most important year in baseball, he was hitting .230 in April, and St. Louis sportswriters were calling for his benching. He seemed lost. The year before, his father had felt the growing resentment whenever he intruded with advice. Falcone's metaphor took on new meaning as John Hernandez's words buzzed around Keith's ear.
"I don't want to hear it," he told his father. "I'd rather 9-to-5 it than hear this." That is, leave baseball and get a 9-to-5 job. "Don't butt in anymore." It used to be that they would talk by phone, before the days of the satellite dish, and John could tell him what to do without seeing him. "He would describe his feeling up at the plate, and I would tell him what he was doing wrong, and it worked," John says. "But now he shunned me."
Boyer, managing the Cardinals by then, finally pulled Hernandez out of that April shower. On a team flight one day, Hernandez's old Tulsa manager told him, "You're my first baseman. Don't worry about what's being written. I don't care if you hit .100. You'll be there every day." That's all Hernandez needed to hear. At year's end he was the NL batting champion with a .344 average, and he had 105 RBIs. Along with the Pirates' Willie Stargell, he was voted the co-MVP of the National League.
Suddenly, no longer was he the shy, insecure ballplayer he had been. He felt more comfortable in crowded rooms, mixing at banquets and parties. "I overcame it because of ego," he says. "The MVP! All of a sudden everybody was lauding me. All that public adulation. It helped me become more secure."
He put two exceptional years back to back, hitting .321 with 99 RBIs in 1980. He seemed to have finally found himself. But 1980 was the year, too, that he separated from his wife and found cocaine. In front of that Pittsburgh grand jury, he called it "the devil on this earth" and described how he went on a three-month binge during the 1980 season, suffering nosebleeds and the shakes. He says that he began using it when someone offered it to him and that he did not know much about the drug at the time.
"It was ignorance," he says. "Not much was known about cocaine then. It wasn't supposed to be addictive. You can do it once in a while and that's it. It will not have the lure to draw you back. That's false. It was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life. To this day I think about it and say, 'Oh, damn! How stupid can you be?' "
He says he used it only recreationally, mostly on the road and after games, and got off it on his own in early 1983 because he no longer liked the high. "You can't turn it off like a light switch," he says. "It has to run its course. You want to go to sleep and you can't. I didn't like the high anymore. I'm glad for that. It made it easier to get off. There is nothing good about it. I'm really proud I got off the stuff myself. I didn't go into rehab." In the meantime, Keith had led the Cardinals to the 1982 world championship.
There were rumors around baseball in 1983 that Hernandez had a drug problem, and Mets general manager Frank Cashen had heard them. When Cardinals G.M. Joe McDonald called Cashen and offered him Hernandez for pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey, Cashen made some inquiries about the rumors. "It did concern me, but I was told there was nothing to it," Cashen says. Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog says, "We needed pitching. Besides, Keith wasn't running out ground balls, and if there's one thing that gets to me, it's that. I would have traded Babe Ruth if he wasn't running out ground balls. The funny thing is, Keith never loafed on defense."
After the deal was made on June 15, 1983, Herzog called Hernandez into his office and broke the news. "We traded you to the Mets," said Herzog.