"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."
There is one man, though, who can break through. John Hernandez, Keith's 63-year-old father, has been the most influential and dominant presence in his son's life. He is the man who taught him to play the game. He is the man who has so pushed and ridden him that at times they are barely on speaking terms. Only John ever broke into the sanctuary.
Just this summer—after a bitter falling-out over a dispute that had nothing to do with his father's being on his back, the usual source of their conflicts—Hernandez became so distracted that he sank into a batting slump that lasted two months. Keith had bought his father a satellite dish so that he could watch him play all over the country, yet the very thought that his father was watching infuriated him.
"I knew he was watching and I couldn't stand him watching," Hernandez says. "I'd be in the on-deck circle and I'd be thinking about him. I'd get up to the plate and be thinking about him. I'd go oh for 4 and I'd say to myself, 'Sit there and squirm.' I called Gary and said, 'I can't stand him watching me play.' I didn't have the concentration. It's the one time something got in between me and my play, and he doesn't even know it. That's why my slump was so bad."
Their relationship is complex, as is often the case between a father and son, but theirs is one right out of The Great Santini, filled with the sounds of clashing egos and the fury of resentments. John Hernandez, Juan to his son, is an obsessive and overbearing man who taught Keith how to hit and field, and the simple truth is that no one, no manager or batting instructor, knows the nuances of his swing half as well as his father does.
For years, John's understanding of Keith's stroke has been the tether that has kept these two men together. Keith knows that no one can help him out of a slump as quickly as his father can, and so, throughout his career, he has often turned to his father for help. At the same time, he has felt the compelling need to break away from his father and make it on his own, to be his own man.
"It's a paradox," brother Gary says. "Keith wanted to feel he could stand up and do it on his own. By the same token, my dad gave Keith a real big advantage—an ace in the hole. For Keith not to use it, to go through the miseries of a slump when he could get out of it much sooner, was really ridiculous."
Ridiculous or not, Hernandez has tried over the years to cut the cord. "I've tried to pull away but he won't let me," says Keith. "We've had major falling-outs. I'd tell him, 'Dad, I'm a man. I don't want to be reliant on you for my career. Dad, I'm 28.... Dad, I'm 30.... Dad, I'm 31.... Dad, I'm 32; I'm a man.' There would be no conflicts ever if he wouldn't force his help. If he had said, 'Anytime you need me, I'm here,' things would have been much better."
But, no, says Keith. "It was, 'If you don't want to hear this advice, you'll hit .240 this year.' He wants to take credit. He's told me, 'You wouldn't have made it without me pushing you.' You mean to tell me that of all the professional athletes in the world, all of them had a father that pushed and pushed and pushed on them? I find that hard to believe."
This relationship with his father has been the central conflict in Keith Hernandez's life. "He's got a love-hate thing for me," John says. "He loves me, but he hates me for some of the things I've made him do. He wants to love me, but he wants to fight me. He has so much natural ability that he takes the easy way out. I would step on him for getting bored. I forced him. 'Put out!' I told him. People have said, 'Hey, you made Keith.' No, I didn't make him. You could take another kid and do the same thing with him and he wouldn't do a damn thing. He had the talent, so he could do it.... So many people have told him that I've made him, and that is just burning inside of him."
The love-hate thing, if that is what it is, developed long after the carefree days when John first put bats and gloves in his sons' hands. That was in the blue-collar town of Pacifica, a coastal community embraced by the San Bruno mountains some 20 miles south of San Francisco.
John's parents emigrated to America from Spain in 1907 and settled in San Francisco. John was a Depression child, and he grew up in the city channeling most of his energies toward baseball. He was a high school phenom as a first baseman. He hit .650 his senior year. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed him in 1940, for a $1,000 bonus, and he began his minor league career in Georgia. "An outstanding hitter," said Al Rosen, who played against him.
Whatever, the end came too quickly. He was at bat. The lights were bad in centerfield, and he lost sight of a pitch; he was beaned so badly that his eyesight was never the same. He played some baseball for the Navy in World War II—alongside Stan Musial, in fact—but gave it up shortly after the war. "It was a blow not being able to play again," John says.
He eventually joined the San Francisco fire department and moved with his wife, Jackie, to Pacifica. "It was a great place to grow up," Keith says. "Got home from school, cut through the fence and ran through the artichoke fields. There was love in my home. I have fond memories. Summers. Good weather and no school and a neighborhood of around 15 kids. We'd follow the creek back up to the mountains. Almost Huck Finn kind of stuff. And we played ball."
And played and played. Of course, John was the pusher and the shaker behind all this, determined to make his sons into ballplayers. "Baseball was like Dad's vocation," Gary says. "The fire department was something that put food on the table and paid the bills. His passion was baseball and teaching us to play it."
John Hernandez threw himself into it. In their garage he attached a rope to a ceiling beam and at the end of it tied a sock containing a tennis ball. He watched for hours as the two boys swung at it. John can still hear them whacking at that ball. "They'd swing, swing, swing," he says. "Bang, bang, bang. You could hear them all day long. When the sock wore out, I'd replace it. A jillion of them."
And there were all those days of batting practice. John threw the BP, teaching them the strike zone and how to hit to all fields. Now and then, he would pile the bats and gloves and balls in the car and announce, "We're gonna go hit!"
"Nah," Keith would say, "we don't wanna hit today."
And Dad would say, "Get your butts in the car. We're gonna hit!" Into the car they would go. John would spend hours hitting them ground balls and pop-ups at first base. They were going to be first basemen, just as he had been, by God! And then there were the baseball quizzes. "He gave us written tests," says Keith. "On situations. Thirty or 40 questions. I was eight years old when these started. He would write out situations and read them to us, and we had to answer where we'd be on the field, where the first baseman was supposed to be on the field at all times. On cutoffs. Double plays. I knew fundamentals when I was eight years old."
John made his wife a part of his private baseball school, too. At Little League games, Jackie was in charge of taking the home movies. These were not home movies to be enjoyed on a Sunday afternoon. No. "We'd get the film back and he would go over the swings," says Keith. "Fundamentally. Every at bat."
John immersed himself in his boys' athletic lives, particularly in Keith's. In Keith he saw early a potential major leaguer—the player that a high inside pitch out of those bad lights had kept him from becoming. Gary didn't have Keith's natural gifts, but he could play, too.
"If I hadn't had Dad's help, I wouldn't have become the baseball player I was," says Gary, who won an athletic scholarship at the University of California at Berkeley, where he became an All-America first baseman. "I don't think I could have gotten an education at Berkeley without that help. I was never one to turn my back on any advice my father gave me. I handled that differently than Keith did. He went through growing pains, and I think Dad was a little tougher on my brother. He was too hard on Keith.
"Don't get me wrong, though. Dad was always family-oriented. You could hug and kiss him, and you knew he was always going to be there for you. He'd stick up for you, not let you down."
But whereas Gary was outgoing, sociable and, in his father's words, "happy-go-lucky," Keith was intense, hyper, introverted and driven to succeed, even as a youngster. "He wanted it," John says. "He wanted it bad. I told him, 'If you want it that bad, I'm gonna teach you.' "
The thing about Keith, too, was that he was so sensitive and easy to hurt, prone to nightmares. "He'd wake up screaming," John says. "We'd try to calm him and he'd go 'No! No! No!' He told us later on that everything was moving fast and we were bigger than what we were and everything around the room was big. You could hardly wake him up. He had the fear of God in his eyes."
In contrast, his dad was tough and intimidating—from the old school of very hard knocks. John recalls the day when Keith came running up to the front door screaming that a neighborhood bully was after him. "Let me in!" Keith said. "Wayne's beating up on me!" His father opened the door and scolded him: "If you don't go out there and fight back, you can't come in the house anymore!"
John then slammed the door in Keith's face.
Like any son, Keith sought approval from his father, and it wounded him when he did not get it. Sitting in his den one evening last month, a reflective John Hernandez said, "Keith had that little inferiority complex, and I think he feared he would disappoint me. He thought I would never be satisfied with him."
And no wonder. When Keith was 13, his father thought he saw his son quit on the field, and when the ball game was over, he screamed at him: "Listen, don't you ever quit like that again! I don't care if you strike out 5,000 times! I don't want you to quit!" Keith was so shaken by the tirade that he went home, in tears, in the car of someone else's father. In another game, he went 2 for 3 at the plate, but his father chewed him out in front of several people: "You can't be a ballplayer the way you're hitting! You've got to come back on the ball and rock into it! All you were doing is hitting the damn ball!"
He drove his son. "Sure, I drove him," said John. "You can put that in the magazine. Put it down. That wouldn't bother me." [John Hernandez, however, did not want his picture in the magazine. He refused to pose.—Ed.]
The Hernandezes moved from Pacifica to the nearby town of Millbrae when Keith was a sophomore. At Capuchino High, a school steeped in athletic tradition, Hernandez starred as a quarterback in football, a ball-hawking guard in basketball and, of course, a first baseman in baseball. Thinking that Keith the basketball player was passing off too much, John once got so furious that he told him, "If you don't take 18 shots a game, you come in here and I'll kick you right in the butt! They're making an ass out of you out there." Keith didn't see it that way and kept dishing off to the open man. So, there was John, screaming in the gym at his son, "Keith, don't be a fool! Shoot!" John regrets this now. "I agree it's wrong. I could not control myself. Jackie was embarrassed. I embarrassed Keith."
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!"
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!"
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.
"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.
Now, three years later, Herzog says of the trade, "I think we did him a helluva favor. I think he knows we did."
He certainly does. "It was a rebirth for me," Hernandez says. "Something I needed. I was kind of dying on the vine in St. Louis. I had played there 8½ years and everything was the same. I came here and got a new park, a new atmosphere, a new city. I got rejuvenated, like a complete blood transfusion. I've had more fun playing in New York the last three years than I ever had in my career."
It surprised him how much he came to enjoy New York. "There's so much here to fill your time—plays, parties, sporting events, great restaurants, museums. I love art." In fact, Hernandez owns a large impressionistic painting by the Spanish artist Beltran Bofill. He also has rows of books on the Civil War; he has been a buff for years. Hernandez, who has spoken at West Point on that war, will all of a sudden start chastising General George Meade for letting Lee get away after Gettysburg, as if it happened yesterday.
One of the first things Hernandez does when he gets up in the morning is begin The New York Times crossword puzzle. He'll take it with him to Rusty Staub's restaurant, where he often goes for lunch, and then he'll finish it in the clubhouse. "Lachrymose," he says as he lights up a cigarette. "That's probably 'teary.' "
His smoking habits are worthy of careful study. Hernandez usually smokes only at the ballpark, never at home. Two weeks after the season ends, he loses the urge and does not smoke again until he hits the clubhouse in spring training.
Despite his inner turmoil, Hernandez is a calming, reassuring influence on his teammates. He is looked upon with a reverence and affection rarely seen in a game played by men with large and often fragile egos. When Rafael Santana joined the club as a shortstop in 1984, it was Hernandez who took him aside. "He told me, 'Anything you need from me, any advice, just ask,' " recalls Santana. "He's my best friend on this ball club." Says Darryl Strawberry, "I love him."
Ron Darling and Hernandez are especially close, and Darling sees a man of many natures: "He has a dichotomy of personalities—very personable, very caring, very loving, yet very tenacious and aggressive." Darling recalls the night this season in San Diego when he got yet another no-decision after manager Davey Johnson pulled him after seven fine innings. "The no-decisions had been piling up, and I was a little down. When I got back to my room, there was a bottle of Dom Pèrignon waiting, with a note from Keith." The note said, "Enjoy this. I hope it will help you forget. Your friend, Keith."
If only all of Hernandez's relationships were as smooth as the ones in the clubhouse. The divorce fight has grown more bitter, and Hernandez fears that it will end up in court and that his three children—Jessica, Melissa and Mary Elise—will suffer the most. His relationship with his father is more strained than ever, worsened now because Gary no longer mediates their disputes. The falling-out between Gary and John happened after baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth ruled last February that Hernandez was one of seven players who had to either accept a one-year suspension from baseball or donate 10% of his base salary to a drug prevention program and 200 hours over two years to drug-related community service work. John wanted Keith to take the suspension, telling him, "You'll be subservient to this man the rest of your career!" Gary argued that Keith had gotten off easy and that he should pay the fine and serve the time. Gary and John haven't spoken since.
One day Keith asked his father, "Dad, I have a lifetime .300 batting average. What more do you want?"
His father replied, "But someday you're going to look back and say, 'I could have done more.' "
Hernandez's friends well know the conflict. Lynch says he once heard Keith say, "God, why doesn't he leave me alone?"—then a half hour later he heard Keith on the phone asking his dad for help with his stroke. After a game one night last year, Keith, whom everyone calls the Mex, turned to Staub, formerly Le Grand Orange, and said, "Orange, the Mex stinks. I talked to Juan last night."
"You look a little different swinging the bat," said Staub.
"Yeah, I talked to Juan and he said, 'I used to not see the word Mets on your shirt. Now I can. Bring your hands up.' "
Soon after Hernandez made the adjustment, he went on a tear. That is how well the father knows his son's batting stance. Lynch recalls answering the phone in Keith's condo and speaking to John, whom he had never met. "After I told him who I was, you know what he said? He said, 'You're pitching against the Cubs next week. Ryne Sandberg has been swinging at the first pitch lately.' I thought, this is Keith's dad."
Thanks, or no thanks, to John, Hernandez keeps performing at the highest levels. "I'm expected to hit .300 and drive in 90 runs," he says, "but there are times when I wish I were a .250 hitter. There are times when I go out there and wish Darryl had this at bat, or Gary [Carter]. It doesn't happen often, but I'm human."
Gary Hernandez looks forward to the day when Keith retires. "There won't be the pressure that Keith puts on himself to be the top player that he is," says Gary. "He won't feel the pressure from Dad. And Dad will have to think about other things to do. They will be able to relate as human beings and not have everything keyed around Keith's performance. I won't be stuck in the middle. So things will be better all the way around."
Keith, too, thinks of retirement, of his life 10 years hence and the future he fears. He has this dream. "I want to be on the Pacific Coast. An accomplished sailor. A 30-foot boat. Sailing to Hawaii. Lying on the deck with a beer, with friends. Deep-sea fishing. Drop anchor and fish at night. Tranquil. The seas are calm. Nice breeze. The water is hitting the boat. Birds. The wind flapping a flag on the boat. The sound of water."
But of course. There he is, floating in middle age across the ocean. The boat, you see, is yet another sanctuary, surrounded by the biggest, most embracing moat of all.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
Experience has made Hernandez a model of scientific play around first, but he can also slide for home with abandon, if need be.