Reminiscing With Roger: The Tribe’s Keith Hernandez

My confidence was growing to new heights. By now, I’d become Eckersley-level cocky. My weird, throw-it-with-all-my-might pitch was still fairly unpredictable, but I’d suddenly stumbled into learning to keep it somewhere in the strike zone.

I could always throw sweeping curves and sliders, but they broke slowly and consistently. Roger had long shown the ability to wait until the last second and make solid contact. I’d had some success with the knuckleball. This new, fast pitch I’d come up with, however, was going to tilt future contests in my favor.

It was just a matter of how I gripped the holes in the ball.

“Next.” Of course, the next batter was Roger. Each of us brothers were the only hitter on our teams.

Having finished knocking the imaginary mud off the heels of his imaginary cleats with his plastic yellow bat, Roger stood outside of the batter’s box for a moment. He carefully studied his grip on his bat, elbows-out. Satisfied that the knuckles on both hands were lined up perfectly, he was ready to face the brash joker who was standing tall, 25 feet away.

“Ahhh. A new one. Keith Hernandez. That’s pretty good. Funny.”

The pitch arrived in a blur. Had it crossed the plate? Who knows? Seldom cheated as a batter, Roger’s wild swing whistled at the ball. He hopped out of his off-balance, corkscrewed follow through.

“You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it’s me, I’m a little [effed] up maybe, but I’m funny how, I mean funny like a clown? amyoooshe you? I make you leeaff? I’m here to [effing] amyoooshe you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?”

Now I was actually chuckling out loud. “Get back in the box, Pesci.”

Hernandez, nicknamed ‘Mex’ but who is half Spanish, half Irish, had had a storied career in the National League. He’d been drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1970s (it was said his father had played with Cardinal legend Stan Musial in the Navy during the war). His fielding at first base was considered second to none, and within the next few seasons, his hitting developed as well. The Cardinals had traded their previous first baseman, Joe Torre, in order to make room for Hernandez. In 1976, Hernandez won his first Gold Glove Award. He also hit .344 and was the co-winner of the National League MVP Award (along with Willie Stargell of the Pirates). He remained an NL star, and his Cardinals won the World Series in 1982 vs. Milwaukee. He was also becoming renowned as a student of the game of baseball.

But his manager wanted him gone. The respected Whitey Herzog called Hernandez a “cancer” on the team. He traded the All-Star to the New York Mets.

Keith Hernandez was perhaps the best, most competitive first baseman in the game, yet his team, built to win, didn’t want him.

His new team, the New York Mets, made Hernandez its captain in 1984. He was the veteran many of the very young ballplayers looked to — guys like Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Wally Backman and Ron Darling.

Hernandez originally was reticent to play in New York. He had to be convinced his career could flourish there, where others had struggled due to the pressure and outside distractions. And the Mets were terrible, finishing in last place in the NL East in 1983. But apparently, he was a perfect fit for the Mets.

I assumed a stance to address the hitter for the next pitch. “You know, when Hernandez was traded from St. Louis to the Mets, everyone knew he was a cokehead. It came out during a trial of a Pittsburgh drug dealer.”

On the field, the talent of Keith Hernandez was undeniable. Per Wikipedia:

Hernandez had such a strong and accurate throwing arm that, as a result, the Mets re-routed their relays through him (instead of the second baseman). Due to his quick instincts, Hernandez was also able to play farther off first base than other first basemen, allowing the other infielders to play farther to their right…(He) played so aggressively at first base that he occasionally discouraged opponents to bunt merely by reputation… Cubs manager Jim Frey said he wouldn’t ask most pitchers to bunt against the Mets. “You’re asking for a forceout at second, and now you’ve got your pitcher running the bases,” he said.

Still standing at the mound, I’d begun flipping the ball behind my back with my right hand, forward over my left shoulder, and catching it waist-high with my left. “I read that in the 10th inning of Game Six of the 1986 Series, Keith Hernandez hit a fly ball for the second out with nobody on and the Mets down by two. He left the field and ducked into the manager’s office, and began drinking Budweisers. Before you know it, Billy Buckner let that ball trickle through the wickets to open the gates for the Mets to win that game.”

Roger had been waving his bat, standing ready for the next pitch. “He has always been clutch at the plate. He’s gonna hit 25 home runs in Cleveland this year.”

Hernandez was — and remains — a fixture in the hearts and minds of New York Mets fans. His competitive fire was unmistakable; do a search on YouTube for plenty of proof of that (prepare yourself for New York’s typical self-pleasuring–on second thought, watch with the sound off). Not only could he hit; his string of Gold Gloves stretched through the 1988 season.

I peered in. “Twenty-five? I’ll take that. Give me more than that, and I’ll keep my mouth shut every time he dogs it out of the batter’s box after hitting a fly ball or a grounder.”

Hernandez’ 1989 season was shortened by injury. The Mets were looking to move in a new direction, and did not renew the contracts for Hernandez and catching stalwart Gary Carter after the season.

The Indians had a core of young ballplayers, and the thinking was they could benefit from Keith Hernandez’s veteran presence

The Cleveland Indians were interested. They had a core of young ballplayers, and the thinking was they could benefit from Keith Hernandez’s veteran presence. Although the Tribe still had holdovers such as third baseman Brook Jacoby, left fielder Candy Maldonado, right fielder Cory Snyder, and second baseman Jerry Browne, they had just traded star outfielder Joe Carter to the San Diego Padres. In return, they received veteran Chris James along with young catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr. and infielder Carlos Baerga. They also acquired the speedy Alex Cole. They were preparing the franchise to be competitive as they transitioned to the new ballpark at the Gateway complex.

Pete O’Brien had been the Indians’ first baseman in 1989. For years, he’d been a solid player with the Texas Rangers, although it was tough for an American League first baseman to stand out among the likes of Don Mattingly, Mark McGuire, Eddie Murray and Wally Joyner. Keith Hernandez had bona fide star power, and in 1990 he would represent a step up for the team.

If he could only be healthy enough to play. His knee, injured the prior season, did appear sound.

I performed an elaborate wind-up, in an exaggerated Luis Tiant style. I spun with my entire back to the batter, returning to square my shoulders before releasing the next pitch. Unfortunately, it was a knuckleball gone wrong, hitting the ground five feet in front of Roger. He pulled his bat down and kept his concentration by sweeping the imaginary dirt with his feet, in the imaginary batter’s box.

I spat. “What’s Hernandez hitting, a buck-eighty?”

“Apparently, according to the Cleveland media, the important thing is whether there has been a local Marsha Mason sighting.” The actress was Hernandez’s girlfriend at the time.

As Cleveland Indians fans know, various leg and back injuries caused Hernandez to miss large chunks of the 1990 season, until he was shelved for good in August.

Here is where we do the obligatory break-down of his then-substantial, guaranteed, two-year, $3.5 million contract with the Indians:

  • 43 games equals $81,395 per game.
  • 8 RBI equals $437,500 per RBI.
  • 1 home run equals $3,500,000.00 per home run. And it was hit in an away game.1

Is this too harsh? Maybe. Cleveland did offer him the money, and did so of their own volition. Presumably, he passed the Indians’ physical exam. Although to my untrained eye, Keith Hernandez often looked like he was in pain when he swung the bat while in a Tribe uni.

At least he did try to come back in 1991, until a bulging disc caused him to shut it down for good in spring training. Still, this was a veteran who was signed to help lead young, talented ballplayers as he had done before. The Mets comparison was commonly discussed when he’d joined the Tribe in 1990. However, he not only was not with the team; he was noted by former teammate Ray Knight as failing to even have contacted the Indians when they played in New York. Keith Hernandez was no more visible to Cleveland than was Marsha Mason.

Roger stood in again, and I was ready. In true Sudden Sam fashion, I preferred to employ my full repertoire of pitches regardless of their relative effectiveness. This time, I went with the overhand curve. Roger was familiar with the arm angle, and was ready to crush the pitch even before I released it.

He trotted down the line while the ball sailed into the home run trees. His arms were aloft in a triumphant pose, bat still in hand.

“You might as well grab a couple Budweisers.”

  1. If I could add more zeroes to drive the point home, I would. []