"Everybody thinks, because you make a lot of money, that you have a lock on happiness. It's not true.... I most fear boredom and loneliness, life after baseball. Life after baseball equals boredom and loneliness. I don't want to be a 50-year-old guy sitting and drinking beer in some pickup bar with younger people. I've seen it. I don't want to be that."
There is only one place where Keith Hernandez feels truly safe, only one place on God's green earth where he is at home. To be Keith Hernandez—arguably the finest fielding first baseman of all time, a lifetime .301 hitter, the indisputable leader of the New York Mets—requires just such a place, complete with a moat, wherein he can make a separate peace.
Oh, to be sure, he has that two-bedroom condo in that high rise in Manhattan, where he lives alone with his paintings and his books on the Civil War and his racks of wine and his new suits of clothes. Way up there, he can stand on the balcony on a summer night and look up at the lights on the Chrysler Building and down at the masses flowing along Second Avenue and say, as he did recently, "They can't get at me here."
But other things can, and they do. There is the telephone ringing, often incessantly. There are those long, empty spaces in his life in which self-doubt mounts and rides him like a witch. There are the periods of loneliness between girlfriends, which compel him to call his older brother, his closest friend, in a state of panic and say, "God, Gary, I don't like being by myself! There are 10 million people in New York and it's so lonely. I don't think I'll ever meet anybody again."
There is only one place of retreat away from all that turmoil, and that's where the earth is really green and the bases are white, where those wonderfully straight chalk lines embrace him in the orderly universe of baseball. Nothing intrudes upon him there. In fact, such is the intensity of his focus on the field that fellow players still marvel at Hernandez's performance in that fateful month of September 1985.
He had separated from his wife and three children and was in the first throes of a hostile estrangement. On Sept. 6 he appeared before a widely publicized Pittsburgh grand jury investigating drug dealer Curtis Strong, and for four hours testified about his use of cocaine between 1980 and early 1983, when he was playing for the St. Louis Cardinals. On the field, he was literally leading the Mets through a tight divisional title race with the Cardinals. In fact, just four days before he testified in Pittsburgh—an ordeal so physically draining that his suit was soaked through with sweat—he went 5 for 5 in San Diego.
Gary, a former minor leaguer who now sells insurance in northern California, says, "If I was about to go before a grand jury, I'd have been so distracted that I probably would have put my uniform on backwards. Keith seems to do better when he is under duress."
"I've never seen a guy, no matter what he has gone through, play like that under pressure," says Expo shortstop and former Met teammate Hubie Brooks.
Hernandez played with passionate clarity and grace that September. Despite what he was going through, he hit .373: 38 hits in 102 at bats. And he worked his usual wonders at first base on his way to winning his eighth straight Gold Glove.
So it's in that haven of the ball field where he finds his safety. "Baseball totally consumes me while I'm at the ballpark," Hernandez says. "If it hadn't been for baseball, I might have cracked. I've always been able to separate everything from baseball for three hours. Out in the field, no one can touch me. In a sense it's my sanctuary, a glass-house sanctuary. They can look in and see, but they can't touch."