I'm Keith Hernandez: A Memoir
I love baseball.
But I find most books about baseball players boring. There seems to be a standard template for how you write them. Maybe it’s because there are so many of these books out there, but it feels like they’ve become a paint-by-numbers exercise, dictating what you talk about and how you talk about it.
Forget that. I’m Keith Hernandez. I want to write this my way.
When I was a kid, my father would come home from his twenty-four-hour fireman shift and bring fresh San Francisco sourdough bread from the local bakery. If we were lucky, he also would have stopped by the Spanish market and picked up chorizo sausage. The bread would still be warm from the baker’s oven, and Mom would spread some butter or jelly over it and give it to my brother and me. Soft on the inside with a crust that made your teeth work just the right amount. It was wonderful. I want to make this book something like that. Something that you set your teeth into and say, “Keith, that’s pretty good. More, please.”
So I’ll need to keep things easy and moving along. I want you to feel the spontaneity I feel when I reflect.
And I have specific periods I want to focus on. (In the broadcast booth, I find that when you try to talk about everything, you wind up saying nothing. People just tune you out, and even if they don’t, they can’t possibly learn very much.) I want to talk about my development as a baseball player and how it got me to the major leagues; I want to talk about how I gained the confidence to thrive in the bigs despite a grueling haul; and, finally, I want to talk about how my development as a young player affects how I see the game today from my seat in the broadcast booth.
Because I’ve spent most of my life around baseball, I have good stories to tell. And I love sharing them with others.
Like the other night: I was sitting at a table at Harvest on Fort Pond in Montauk, New York, with my good friends Paul and Chantal Weinhold. The place was packed with folks enjoying the cozy environment and excellent food, and I had brought a couple of bottles from my wine cellar for the table. We were happy, and the talk was easy and fun. It’s always that way with Paul and Chantal, a married couple I’ve known since my playing days with the Mets.
Somewhere along the way, we started talking about baseball—specifically, this year’s Mets team. Paul, who’s a psychologist and finds the mental aspects of the game fascinating, asked about a Mets starting pitcher, a flamethrower who was successful at getting batters out but had a tough time holding them on base during the rare occasions they got on. The opposing team had made five swipes against him a few nights earlier.
“He’s been doing it one way for years,” Paul said, referring to the pitcher’s delivery to home plate. “And now people expect him to change. Can he?”
“Why not?” I said. “Doc [Gooden] did it at the start of his major league career. He had the same issue.”
“But how difficult is that sort of adjustment?” Chantal asked. “After all, like the rest of us, aren’t baseball players creatures of habit?”
I said it would take time, and, yes, some players get stuck when opponents expose a weakness.
“It’s more about mental toughness than the actual adjustment,” I said, and I told them how Nolan Ryan would storm around in between pitches, strutting like John Wayne ready for a gunfight in the town square. “You got the feeling that, if he had to, Nolan could throw the ball with his other hand and still find a way to get batters out. For this guy on the Mets, he’s got to tap into that sort of mentality: This is my mound, and I will do anything to protect it. After that, it just becomes a matter of decreasing his delivery time to home plate while not giving up any of his outstanding stuff. It’s that simple.”
Then I recalled a story I had been told years earlier. To me, it defines that territorial attitude a pitcher must have to be successful.
“Did I ever tell you what Don Sutton told me? About what he did when Tommy Lasorda tried to mess with his pregame routine?” I asked while topping off the glasses with a 2007 Insignia. Paul and Chantal shook their heads, and I could see they wanted me to go on. I mean, it’s Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton, two Hall of Famers, so it was not a hard sell.
The Dodgers were in Pittsburgh for a series. They lost the first game, and Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers’ then-manager, was bent out of shape because the Pirates had stolen, like, five bases during the game. This was 1979 or 1980—Lasorda’s third or fourth year as their manager. So Lasorda, who liked to cuss, came into the visitors’ clubhouse after the game and began screaming at his pitchers. All of them. He yelled “You motherf—ers” this and “You c—suckers” that, and he told them that they all were coming out the next day, before the game, to practice holding runners on base.
Don Sutton, a veteran who was having another stellar season, raised his hand and said, “Hey, I’m pitching tomorrow. You still want me to come in at three?”
“You’re goddamn right!” yelled Lasorda.
“Okay, I’ll come in at three,” Don said.
The next day Sutton and the rest of the starting staff showed up. It was the middle of the afternoon and on lousy Astroturf, so it was, like, 100 degrees. Lasorda had them all out there in the heat for about forty minutes, working on holding runners on base.
The game started and Sutton took the mound in the bottom of the first. Omar Moreno, the speedy base-stealing center fielder, led off for the Pirates, and Sutton gave up an immediate single. On purpose.
“I just threw a BP fastball down the middle” is what Don told me later. Sutton had great control and command of all five of his exceptional pitches: In the sixty-four times I faced him over my career, he walked me twice. That’s 1 per 32 at-bats, and I averaged 1 walk per 6 at-bats over my career against the rest of the league. So if Don Sutton wanted to give you something you could slap, he could do it. The question was, why?
Now Sutton had Moreno on first—the exact situation Lasorda had him and the other pitchers working on before the game—and Sutton looked for his sign from the catcher, went into his stretch, and balked! On purpose!
“Lasorda never messed with me again,” Sutton said.
Even though they’re not ballplayers, Paul and Chantal understood the psychological significance of this story. Sutton was saying, Okay, Lasorda, this is my day to pitch and my mound. I’m in control! Don’t you dare screw with that again. And a pitcher who’s got that sort of cojones—giving a batter a free pass to second base just to make a point to his manager—will also have the guts and the grit to figure out how to keep winning ball games. He will make adjustments.