It was, says Keith Hernandez, “like going into
a monastery for five years, and then coming
Those were the five years after the National League’s Most Valuable Player of 1979 had played his last game, not as a New York Met, but in his final fragment of a season with the Cleveland Indians. The last game after 17 years in the Major Leagues, six and a half of those years (1983-1989) as the driving force and best first baseman the Mets have ever had, one of the best fielding first baseman that all of baseball has ever had.
The home-run madness of the ’90s is what, coming right on the heels of his retirement, had turned off this artisan and purist of the diamond.
“I was fine,” says Hernandez of that extended interregnum. “I didn’t watch baseball – not a game, not a playoff, not a World Series. For five years. I was just very angry. Angry at the owners. Angry at the Commissioner. Angry at everybody. All all these guys hitting 70 home runs [in a season]. It just didn’t click. Particularly after the strike season  when those home runs were needed to make baseball popular again … ”
Hernandez is referring, not too obliquely, to 1998, when the cloud-busting home runs of Sammy Sosa
“It had all started toward the end of my career. There were whispers [about steroids]. I know there were some players I looked at … Come on, how do you put on 25, 30 pounds in a year? That was the beginning, in the mid ’80s. Just a sprinkle,” says the handsome mustachioed six-footer who for his own part had for a decade – from age 19 to 29 – entertained more than a sprinkle of other foreign substances in his body and lived to tell the tale, first to a Pittsburgh grand jury in 1985.
As anyone who follows the Mets on any of the several channels that carry their games can tell you, Keith Hernandez speaks his mind – not in diatribes, or wisecracks, but firmly, openly, articulately, and unafraid. San Francisco born, California raised, he became the pluperfect New Yorker – gossip-fodder making-the-scene Manhattanite – the moment he was traded to the Mets by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1983.
Since 1985 his base in the city has been a high-rise apartment in the East 40s close to where Katharine Hepburn lived and Stephen Sondheim still does. “Yes, I used to see Hepburn walking around all the time,” Hernandez says as he sits after breakfast at the dining-room table of that apartment. “I never spoke with her. I wasn’t going to bother her privacy. Actually I’m now reading the autobiography of Howard Hughes” [in whose life Hepburn played a certain role].
“Me?” says the 52-year-old Hernandez. “My life’s an open book.” And it is, mostly, though there’s been not too much recorded anywhere about the ancestry, parentage, boyhood, or early life of the ballplayer who would be saddled, to his disgust, with the stupidly inapplicable nickname “Mex,” or of the woman who a few years ago came into, and now shares, his life. She has also just come into this dining room and taken a seat to listen in.
Hernandez has sometimes been too outspoken for his own good – as, for instance, in 2002, when Mets broadcast commentator Hernandez was quoted on a Website as accusing that year’s players of having let down manager Bobby Valentine during the team’s final fade.
“They got all pissed off,” the 52-year-old Hernandez says now. “I meant what I said, but I had to apologize. It was a blanket indictment of the whole team, and that was unfair. They went on to win seven in a row, and then” – dryly, pokerfaced -- “went back to their old ways.”
It was on another Valentine’s Day – not ex-manager Bobby’s, but the calendar’s, this past February – that Keith Hernandez and slim, dark, appealing Kai Whitman Thomson got married down at a house he has in Jupiter, Florida (plus another hideaway out in the Hamptons).
It was not her first marriage, nor his. “My second -- I waited 20-odd years,” says the Hernandez who has two daughters from marriage No. 1 to “a girl from St. Louis” when he was back with the Cardinals. He is also the adoptive father of Kai’s son from a previous marriage.
“Do you want to hear Kai’s story?” he asks – and then, to her: ‘Do you want me to tell it? Everything? Sure? Sure?’ ”
She nods Yes.
“Okay. Well, Kai’s a 9/11 widow. We first saw one another at a party here in New York at the Pennsylvania Hotel in 1999. I was with another girl. Kai was an enormous Mets fan. It was like "South Pacific." ‘Some enchanted evening … ” We made eye contact. I said to a friend -- ”
“A scout,” his Manhattan-born-and-bred wife interjects -- baseball terminology for talent-hunter.
‘I said to a friend: ‘Go over there and get her telephone number.’ The friend came back and said: ‘She’s engaged to someone.’ ” (The someone was bond trader Glen Thomson, who was to die in the World Trade Center.)
“Oh well, c’est la vie. Two years pass. I’m somewhere on the Upper East Side, having lunch with a bunch of guys, when she walks in, and somebody says: ‘She lost her husband in 9/11.’ ”
This time there was a mutual friend who worked for the Corcoran real-estate group.
“I asked that friend for Kai’s phone number. The friend asked Kai: ‘Do you think you’re ready?’ Kai said: ‘Well, I’m certainly ready to speak on the phone.’ Six weeks later, the friend gave me Kai’s phone number. I was in Florida. Kai and I talked every day on the phone, and then, finally … ”
That’s the Kai story. Ex-Met Rusty Staub, no
slouch of a ballplayer himself, gave her away at the wedding in Florida.
The Keith Hernandez story begins October 20, 1953, in San Francisco, California. “October 20 – Juan Marichal’s birthday, Mickey Mantle’s birthday, and mine.”
“My father was John Hernandez, Jr., a San Francisco fireman for 25 years and a minor-league baseball player – a first baseman – during the Depression. My older brother Gary, by the way, was [like Keith] an all-American left-handed first baseman.”
The Hernandez strain goes back to Malaga, Spain.
“My grandfather, John senior, was a Spanish grump. His father was a captain in the Guardia Civil. John senior and his wife Lita foresaw the troubles coming in Europe and fled Spain in 1911. For some reason they went to the Philippines, where they chopped sugar until they caught a boat to Hawaii. They chopped sugar there, and John senior got to be foreman, and they caught a boat to San Francisco, bringing daughter Isabel with them. They proceeded to have five more children, my dad being the youngest.
“I’m the first Hernandez to have diluted blood. My mother, Jacquelyn Jordan Hernandez, a Deep South girl from Beaumont, Texas, was Scots-Irish. Her family had fled persecution in Scotland in the 1600s.
“I hate that ‘Mex’ and my dad hated it worse. ‘Spain!’ he’d yell. ‘Where is that on the map? Europe!’
Keith’s father died at 69 in 1992 – “ironically the year I retired.” His mother had died in 1989, at 59, of Alzheimer’s.
The Gold Glove first baseman’s first place of boyhood was Pacifica, California, some 20 miles south of San Francisco.
“A lot of my friends got caught up in the drug culture and ended up in jail or dead. My dad knew what was going on and moved us to Millbrae, near the airport. I went to Capuchino High School, like the coffee, where I did all three sports, football, basketball, baseball.”
Read any books?
“I was very fortunate to have a great English teacher senior year. Mr. Mahaffey – a big John Steinbeck fan.” Hernandez went off to baseball after “one semester as a B-minus student” at San Mateo City College.
“The Cardinals scouted me, every team scouted
me. I was a pitcher/first baseman, but my arm wasn’t ready and the manager
was a jerk, so I quit college and was drafted in the 250th round, something
like the 750th pick. The Cards offered me $3,000 to sign. My dad said:
‘That’s a joke,’ and he negotiated them to $30,000. I signed in June 1971.
“In 1974, when the Cards lost the division title to the Pirates by one game, I had had a great year with the Triple-A Oklahoma Oilers. Joe Torre [then the Cardinals’ All-Star first baseman/third baseman] sprained his thumb, They didn’t want to put him on the disabled list, so they released Tim McCarver to make room for me on the roster.
“My first game” – engraved on memory, natch – “was August 30, 1974, against the Giants in San Francisco, my home town, with about 90 million of my relatives watching. I went 1 for 3 – a ground-ball single between first and second off Mike Caldwell. I stayed up the whole year, and when Joe got well, I used to pinch hit.”
It was injuries that put an end to his own career. “The first 13 years I was never hurt. The last two years I had a hamstring, broke my kneecap in a collision during a game against the Dodgers, had back surgery. A typical story … ”
May we talk about you and drugs?
“Sure. Everybody knows about it, and that’s fine. It started with marijuana; it always does, and no matter what they say, I do believe it leads to other things. You’re around that element. In 1973 I was in Double-A at Little Rock, Arkansas, and then at Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was 19 years old.
“At Tulsa they gave us [rookies] an apartment with two double beds at $10 for the whole thing, to share with some other guy. A month later another player, we don’t need to use his name, moved in with me, so that made it $5.
“The first night he breaks out a pound – a brick – of marijuana. Which had to have something else in it. It was the year, I remember, of the Pink Floyd album. So he breaks this out, and it’s off to the races … ”
Hernandez stops, regroups, proceeds.
“I basically smoked pot till I was 29. Because I needed to. Somewhere down the road, someone was traded for, again I won’t mention the name, and that was that. Cocaine. The slippery slope. Not recommended for anyone.
“By the time of Pittsburgh [and that 1985 Grand Jury] it was a closed book. I had quit” – gone clean. “Did it all myself, in 1982. Realized I had to. So when I got a call from the FBI in the spring of 1984 – they’d even got my unlisted phone number in St. Petersburg – it was, oh shit, you’ve got to be kidding, here we go again.”
It was Rusty Staub who brought Hernandez back into baseball. He got Keith together with talent agent Don Buchwald, who asked if Hernandez was interested in announcing.
“ ‘Naah,’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ ‘Well, keep an open mind,’ Buchwald said. My agent, David Katz, is very patient. He kind of pressed me. I finally decided: No matter what they do to it or how it changes” – is diluted – “baseball is still a beautiful game.”
You can hear Keith Hernandez and see him covering the Mets on the cable broadcasts of FSNY and MSG “and once in a blue moon” on Channel 11 filling in for the great (and opinionated) Tom Seaver – “my Hall of Fame weekends,” says Hernandez, as dryly as before.
You may have heard and seen him on a fairly embarrassing two-part 1992 "Seinfeld" in which Jerry Seinfeld develops a locker-room crush on the five-time All-Star first baseman. “Terrifying,” says Hernandez in retrospect. “A live audience. Lots of lines. Not a good experience. Just living in New York makes these things happen.”
You may have read some or all of the three
books he’s written, "If at First" (with Mike Bryan), a
day-by-day diary of the 1985 season; "Pure Baseball: Pitch by Pitch"
(also with Mike Bryan), in which two games are analyzed and you’re told what
to look for while watching on television – “this was the idea of my editor
Wendy Wolf” --and "First-Base Hero," a children’s pop-up book. “That
one’s all me.”
You may have read he was a Civil War buff, although he himself says that’s an exaggeration by the press and pr people. “You know how it is when you come up to the big leagues: ‘What are your interests, Mr. Hernandez?’ ” He does however admit that he’s been three times to take a look at Gettysburg.
You may have observed the glossy black-haired Keith Hernandez along with Walt Frazier in the Just for Men hair-coloring commercials.
What’s the real color of your hair?
When did you first grow that moustache?
“The first day I stepped out of the house at 18, to get out from under my dad’s thumb.”
You know, Mr. Hernandez, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other first baseman do what you as a Met used to do, and a lot more than just once or twice – grab a grounder, even a bunt, and throw out a runner who was sliding in to third base.
“Thank you,” said Keith Hernandez gravely. “I’ve never seen anyone else do it either. And I could even do it when playing back of the bag at first. I had a strong arm.”
MVP is short for Most Valuable Player. It’s
also short for most valuable person.