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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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"Who?" said Hernandez, in shock.

"The Mets," said Herzog.

At the time, the Mets were in last place and appeared to be going nowhere. One of the first things Hernandez did was call his agent. Jack Childers, and tell him he wanted to quit baseball. "Can I live off my deferred income?" Keith asked him.

"Wouldn't be enough," said Childers.

So off Hernandez went to join the lowly Mets. "I had probably the worst attitude in my career playing out that '83 season," he says. Soon after the trade, brother Gary watched Keith take batting practice one day in Candlestick Park. Mets coach Bobby Valentine, now the manager of the Texas Rangers, was throwing, and Hernandez was simply waving at the ball, sending dribblers back to him. "I wanted to throw up," Gary says. He followed Keith to the clubhouse and confronted him: "What was that out there? Who do you think you are? That man was out there throwing batting practice and you were wasting his time! Do you think you're better than the guys here? You're not! You've embarrassed yourself and you've embarrassed me."

Keith took the scolding and started playing ball. He finished the season at .297. At Gary's prodding, he signed a five-year, $8.4 million contract with the Mets. Gary told him that New York was a place where his skills would be showcased, where he would be at the top of the heap, where he could meet people and make connections for that life he feared after baseball. Gary told him, "The team is not that bad. They have young players coming up. You could be a vital cog to get the whole thing going. This is your chance to shine."

In spring training of 1984, Hernandez could see the promise, the many fine young players in the organization. What he brought to that '84 Mets team was everything he had learned from his father and all the helpmates who had followed. He emerged as what Brock had always told him to be: the agent of action. "That's the great bonus we got," says Cashen. "We knew he was a great fielder, a great hitter, but the thing that nobody knew here was that he was a leader. He took over the leadership of this ball club. Gave it something it just didn't have."

In 1984, with rookie Mike Fitzgerald catching, Hernandez not only took over the positioning of the infielders but also chattered constantly at the pitchers. "He knew every hitter in the league," says former Mets pitcher Ed Lynch. "He always reminded you: 'This guy is a high-ball hitter. Make him hit a breaking ball....' 'Good fastball hitter.' If the count was 0-2, he'd say, 'Way ahead. Don't make a mistake.' " It got to the point, says Lynch, that he was always looking inquiringly to Hernandez when a hitter came to the plate. "If Einstein starts talking about the speed of light, you better listen to him," says Lynch.

While running the team, Hernandez also hit .311 for the year, with 94 RBIs. "That was the first time I was looked to for support," he says. "It was an emotionally draining year for me. When it was over, I was tired. I gave more of myself than at any time in my life to anybody else." When the Mets got catcher Gary Carter the next year, the pressure to guide the pitchers was off, but everywhere else Hernandez's presence was still felt. "I can't remember an at bat I've had when he's not on the on-deck circle giving me information," says Lenny Dykstra. "He'll tell you, 'Make this pitcher get his curveball over. If you get on base, you can run on him.' What is so important is he knows the catchers. 'This guy's a pattern catcher: curveball, fastball outside, fastball inside.' "

He had become, to the Mets, simply the best and most valuable player in the franchise's history.

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