I'm Keith Hernandez: A Memoir
Keith Hernandez played first base better than anyone of the late 1970s and ’80s. He was an acrobat in the field—snaring line drives, tumbling and throwing out runners, charging bunts to within 15 feet of the batter, when few other first basemen would charge within 45 feet.
He rose to prominence with the St. Louis Cardinals, was named co-MVP (with the Pirates’ Willie Stargell) of the National League in 1979, helped lead the Cards to a World Series victory in 1982, and after a trade to the Mets, pulled off a World Series win, in 1986. Seinfeld fans will remember him as Elaine’s boyfriend, confidently playing himself. “I’m Keith Hernandez,” he told Elaine. In 2000 he began another career, as an observant, witty, opinionated, fashionably dressed TV analyst for Mets games.
So it’s very interesting that the thing Mr. Hernandez did better than anyone else—fielding at first base—garners just a paragraph here and there in I’m Keith Hernandez. Keith Hernandez, you must understand, does things his way—and if you’re sharp enough to notice—it’s usually a better way (check out his elaborate, custom, color-coded score sheets, which he compiles while broadcasting Mets games).
For the chatty, informative, witty I’m Keith Hernandez, it’s as if Mr. Hernandez has met us—his reader—for a drink one early evening, and he’s going to divulge a bit about his past. He’s going to focus on three areas of his life: learning baseball as a child, willing his way up the rungs of professional baseball, and observing the panoply of 21st century baseball as a well-to-do middle-aged broadcaster.
Reminiscences of his championship season with the Cardinals is not brought up, and the ’86 Mets—a swaggering pack of partyers and brawlers led by Keith and upright Christian Gary Carter—are mentioned in passing. For I’m Keith Hernandez, he doesn’t want to cover his entire career, and in this case, as in so much else, Keith’s way is better.
And often hilarious. In Tulsa, freaking out amid the black sky and freight-train cacophony during a tornado, he rushes for cover into a friend’s apartment only to find the friend and the friend’s girlfriend in their own world of intense sex. He describes the effects of taking amphetamines before games (“We used to call them the martini olive, a little additive to your boost.”). He has fond memories for the state mental patients who attended Sunday games at Class AA Little Rock, one of whom, Brad, would find his way to the first row behind home plate and repeatedly shout, “Brad! Brad! The best friend you ever had!”
There’s advice from Keith’s brother, Gary (who also was a pro, but never made it to the big leagues), on being a handsome baseball player in a bar: “He said there would be gals who would flirt with me just to get their boyfriends jealous, and the last thing I needed was a drunk and angry BF looking for a fight. ‘Just say, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know this was your girlfriend. Please forgive me.’ Then exit stage right.”
Bus rides seemingly as long as prison sentences, great coaches, ex-Cardinal Harry “The Hat” Walker giving counterproductive hitting instructions, a minor league -team owner loaning Keith $2000 before a players’ strike, appreciations of his broadcast-booth partners Gary Cohen and former-Mets pitcher Ron Darling, the overuse of statistics in baseball, more sex, more drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.
Then there’s Keith learning to hit, first under the instruction of his father, John, a former minor league player turned San Francisco fireman, a tightly strung hardass. On to the minor leagues, where there are detailed descriptions of dealing with his enemies—opposing pitchers—encountering failure, slumps, benchings—and overcoming them with god-given quick hands, hard work, and brains. For high school and college baseball players, even professionals, the way Keith Hernandez describes his batters’ box adjustments, how to approach top tier pitchers, might be helpful in getting to the next level. Few baseball books are as valuable to hitters who are trying to master the game.
For casual fans, the passages about learning to hit might be too technical, but don’t worry, laughs are only a page or two away. On hitting slumps: “By slumps, I mean an 8 for 60. That’s, like, fifteen games—or two weeks—of coming to the park and feeling like a monkey humping a football.” On a fan asking for an autograph: “I mean a grown man did just ask if another grown man could sign his baseball card.” On himself, now an ex-player: “Sometimes when I’m in the booth, looking down at that perfectly manicured grass, I say to myself, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great if . . .’ Yeah, right, Keith!”
He mentions his Bengal cat, Hadji, a few times, which is interesting because Keith moved like a cat—fluid, almost prancing, un-stereotypically macho, a bit like his near-contemporary, first baseman Andrés Galarraga (whose nickname was The Big Cat). Graceful dudes you didn’t want to accuse of not walking around like John Wayne. Cool cats!
Every anecdote has a good reason for being included, and the three time periods of his life are intelligently orchestrated into a lively narrative. One quibble is the preponderance of footnotes, almost on every page, which pull the eye out of the flow, the rhythm.
You get the sense that there’s a lot more to tell, even zanier anecdotes about teammates and girls. But Keith has told us, over these few cocktails, what he’s going to tell us. He gets up, politely says goodbye, and is off into the night, not mentioning his next destination, and we have not been proffered an invitation to go with.
But he has left us with this, a grand slam home run of a book about 1970s and ’80’s baseball, and a wonderful book about the hardest thing to master in all of sports: swinging a stick to mightily redirect a curving sphere zipping 95 miles per hour.