Almost four decades ago, the Mets’ general manager Frank Cashen thought he’d laid the foundation for the Taj Mahal. The Cardinals’ transcendent but troubled first baseman, Keith Hernandez, thought the roof fell in on him.
A mainstay of a defending world champion, who’d driven Cashen to drink almost every time he played against the Mets, was about to become a Met.
From the moment a previous Met regime traded Hall of Famer Tom Seaver because he seemed a little too uppity about how the team should spend their money (a few parts upon himself as baseball’s best pitcher; a lot more parts on the free agency market and replenishing the farm), the Mets reverted to their original losing ways. And they weren’t half as funny about it.
It was one thing for the best first baseman in baseball to run afoul of his manager Whitey Herzog because a small morass of off-field issues sent him into the cocaine netherworld and, in 1983, into a few lazy baseball habits. It was something else to be sent to what was then, still, the National League’s version of the seventh circle of hell.
Herzog and Hernandez weren’t exactly Damon and Pythias. The White Rat was earthily thoughtful; Mex was cerebral. Where Herzog preferred the George Brett prototype right down to the pinch of Skoal in that Hall of Famer’s cheek, Hernandez smoked cigarettes and engaged Civil War period fiction and the New York Times crossword puzzle, for openers.
The thinking person’s sport had an actual thinking person in its ranks, who just so happened to be an on-base machine and a first base revolutionary. Herzog forgot the thinking side of himself and also listened to the whispers about Hernandez’s cocaine dalliance. (At the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials, Hernandez would call cocaine “the devil on earth.”)
Herzog asked Cashen if he’d be willing to deal talented reliever Neil Allen. “[Allen’s] well-known drinking problem,” Jeff Pearlman noted in The Bad Guys Won, “didn’t seem to bother Herzog.” When Cashen said he hadn’t thought about it, Herzog replied, “If you think about Neil Allen and another pitcher, we’ll give you Keith Hernandez.”
To St. Louis, which roasted the Cardinals for years to follow over the trade, it was rather like Capitol Records sending Frank Sinatra to Dot Records in exchange for two spare session musicians and a tape operator. (“He came right into our kitchen and rattled our pans for about four years,” Herzog has written, “burned the Cardinals with a lot of big hits.)
Only Hernandez was probably less amused than the Chairman of the Board would have been. The first call he made when told he was about to become a Met was to his agent, Jack Childers. Hernandez wanted to know if he could afford to retire and live off his deferred income. Childers counseled his client not to even think about it. Hernandez resigned himself. Oops.
His Met tenure began with a classic, almost Metsian screwup. According to Pearlman, he caught a flight to Montreal, where the Mets were playing the Expos. The Mets’ media relations man, Jay Horwitz, sent a limousine to meet Hernandez. The limo went to the wrong gate, compelling Hernandez to catch a cab.
“When he first got there, I remember looking across the clubhouse at him,” says Ed Lynch, a pitcher on the 1983 Mets. “He was unpacking his bags, I think we’re in Montreal, and I’m thinking, ‘Boy, you poor son of a bitch. What have you gotten yourself into?’”
It took a little romancing and a lot of tour guidance from popular veteran Mets pinch hitter Rusty Staub to convince Hernandez he hadn’t exactly been sentenced to Sing-Sing. Staub showed Hernandez enough of the city’s best—the theater, the museums, the eateries, the libraries, the clubs, the lovely ladies on every street corner, seemingly—to convince the first baseman, “I’ll make a brand-new start of it, New York, New York.”
Hernandez became about 3,200 degrees more. After playing out the 1983 string, Hernandez was convinced enough to sign a five-year deal with the Mets. In his six full seaons as a Met—five solid, the sixth showing the toll the injuries and age took at last—the Mets won more games than any team in the entire Show.
As a Met, he posted a 131 OPS+ upon a slash line of .301/.388/.437, an OPS of .825, and a Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) of .530. Lifetime, his RBA is .528.
Among postwar, post-integration, night ball-era Hall of Fame first basemen it would put Hernandez two points above Tony Perez and in seventh place. But being an on-base machine was only part of his presence. He remains the single most run-preventive first baseman in baseball history. (+120 total zone runs above league average.) It isn’t close. (Should-be Hall of Famer Todd Helton is a distance +107 in second place.)
He wasn’t the lumbering, big-bopping first base cliche. He played the position as though a third or second baseman, not just going for the tough plays and not just his expertise at neutralising bunts, but making himself the on-field infield commander.
“Not only he would tell you what you need to do,” says Lynch, “but he’s going to tell you how the pitchers going to try to prevent you from doing it. So he gave you not only the result, but he gave you the plan to get to that result.”
“The knowledge of the league, which he’d been in for a while, the knowledge of the other hitters, the willingness to know about the other manager’s strategy, the nuances of the game, the minutiae of who’s hitting, who’s running, their tendencies—it all added up to a wealth of knowledge over there that you could draw on,” says Bob Ojeda, the best lefthanded pitcher on the World Series-winning 1986 Mets. “And I did draw on it at times, no question.”
It was hardly Hernandez’s fault that the Mets climbed the National League East ladder, reached the Promised Land, and finished his tenure with only one World Series ring and two pennants to show for a run of first or second place division finishes.
It wasn’t Hernandez’s idea to fool with Dwight Gooden’s repertoire in spring 1986, a foolery that would turn him in due course from beyond this earth to journeyman pitcher while he battled with his own drug addiction. It wasn’t Hernandez’s idea that Darryl Strawberry should spend most of the rest of his Mets life at war with himself, with substance abuse, and with his own team time and again.
It wasn’t Hernandez’s idea that Cashen should break the team apart little by little, or that he and Hall of Famer Gary Carter (Winning brings opposites together, Hernandez once said of Carter, an intelligent catcher but not in Hernandez’s cerebral league) should hit decline phases accelerated to somewhat warp speed by injuries atop their years of hard labour on the field.
Hernandez might have begun giving the Mets “a swashbuckling, devil-may-care, damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead image,” as Lynch phrases it, an image New York loved but the rest of the league didn’t, but it didn’t exactly mean he wanted swashbuckling confused with recklessness as happened with too many of those 1986 Mets.
It took the Mets a very long time to come to terms with both the best and the most controversial team in their long, surrealistic history. The beginnings of those terms included bringing Hernandez into the broadcast booth, first as a part-time colour commentator, then a full-time partner to longtime mainstay Gary Cohen plus Hernandez’s 1980s Mets teammate, equally cerebral pitcher Ron Darling.
“You do the pitching, I do the hitting,” Hernandez told Darling when completing the trio.
The most vivid continuation of that coming to terms was the Mets retiring Hernandez’s uniform number 17 Saturday, before the Mets beat the Marlins in ten innings, 5-4, in a fashion that must have reminded Hernandez of his own good old days, almost: a two-out double sending the inning-opening zombie runner home; and, a throwing error on a dying ball on the front infield grass allowing the winning run to score.
“He asked for No. 37; that was his number with the Cardinals,” Lynch remembers of Hernandez’s original arrival. “And they told him no. He looked at them funny. And they said, ‘That’s Casey Stengel’s number.’ So now he comes over, he takes 17, and that’s getting retired also.”
“I never dreamed I’d be here this long, in the organization,” the Young Perfesser told a packed Citi Field Saturday. “I am absolutely humbled and proud that my number will be up in the rafters for eternity.” With the Ol’ Perfesser and The Franchise, among others.
Perhaps another humbling day will come Hernandez’s way, in due course, if the newly-aligned Contemporary Baseball Era Committee sees fit to give his career the thorough review it merits and gives first base’s greatest defender ever and one of its steadiest on-base machines a berth in the Hall of Fame.
“I got traded to a last-place team and no one at the ballpark,” Hernandez says. “And it turned out to be such a life-changing event for me in such a positive way.” For him and, for a few glorious if not always controversy-free seasons, New York itself.