The '86 reunion weekend brought back a lot of things: the elephant-on-the-chest anxiety and shot-heavenward euphoria of beating the Astros and Red Sox; the exploits of the Scum Bunch and the rest of that merry band of beer-drinkers, hell-raisers and plane-wreckers; the uncertainty of baseball lives after the gloves are hung up; the feeling of a city in which the hapless romantics and stubborn marchers to different drumbeats are Yankee fans.
But for me, it brought back one lesson above all else: I'm a Keith Hernandez guy.
Want to capture something important about those Mets in one image? It's the one of the two team leaders on the steps of City Hall after the ticker-tape parade, holding high the World Series trophy. Gary Carter's wearing a jacket and tie. Keith Hernandez is wearing a grotty cap, t-shirt and jeans — his greatest accomplishment is having managed to find a belt. Both men celebrated the night before. But Carter went home at a reasonable hour (one assumes), got dressed, and got to Shea in plenty of time for the 10 a.m. police escort to Lower Manhattan and the parade down the Canyon of Heroes. Keith? As recounted in The Bad Guys Won, he boozed it all night with Bobby Ojeda, went home at the rather unreasonable hour of 7, woke up at noon and wound up being lifted over a fence by Met fans to join the parade at the last possible moment.
But he made it, and there he is on the steps of City Hall with Gary. He's not exactly natty — in fact, he's probably exuding a radioactive cloud of hangover sweat — but he's there holding up the other end of the trophy, same as the Kid. It's like a Goofus and Gallant strip, only one in which Gallant doing what's right wouldn't mean a damn thing without Goofus. A writer (I believe it was Chris Smith of New York, but can't find the reference, so I'm paraphrasing) once called Hernandez the hero of every guy who's out until 3 a.m. but still kicks ass at work the next day. Keith's reaction: “I thought that was well-put.” (And I took it to heart: When I was younger and tougher there were definitely office days after long nights when I'd bull my way to bleary-eyed success and think, Seinfeld-style, “I'm Keith Hernandez!”)
This isn't to dismiss Gallant — I was and am a huge Gary Carter fan, from his boundless, Golden Retriever enthusiasm to his straight-ahead, unbowed determination. When I was 17, Carter's single to beat Charlie Kerfeld in Game 5 — the same Charlie Kerfeld who'd cheekily shown him the ball that wouldn't be a hit in Game 3 — felt like the last line of some parable. When Gary's book came out the next spring, my mom bought one at a bookstore signing and bent the Kid's ear about me, how I was doing in school, where I might go to college, etc. (MOMMM! QUIT IT!) He couldn't have been nicer, and signed my book “God bless always.”
But ultimately, there are Gary people and there are Keith people, just like there are Mick people and Keef people and Chuck D. people and Flavor Flav people and Luke people and Han people and Carrie people and Samantha people. And I'm a Keith person. Before the celebrations began Saturday night, I was watching the rebroadcast of Game 7. I saw most of it with one eye as I went about my business. But I stopped and zeroed in on Keith's crucial at-bat in the sixth. And it all came back.
Keith, at the plate, staring out at Bruce Hurst with a combination of a surgeon's concentration and a gangster's impatience. It's the era before weight lifting and worse things, so he looks impossibly small and lithe compared with today's players — a fourth outfielder, maybe. Out of uniform the signature mustache looks somewhat distinguished, but the effect is different combined with the 80s mullet squashed under a batting helmet, the unshaven face and the tobacco-stained teeth — he looks like a pirate, like a rock star. (If he were a Rolling Stone, he'd be…Keith!) The indignant disbelief on his face after the first pitch is called a strike. And then, bang! He pounces and here comes Maz and Mookie to make it 3-2. The camera jumps back to Keith on first base. He's cool for a moment, standing there with Bill Robinson, and then the emotion overflows. A first pump, a yell, but that's not enough, so one more of each. “Yeah!” FUCK YEAH!” Then Dwight Evans rolls over Carter's little flare, with Keith caught in no-man's land and tagged out at second as Backman scores, and of course Keith begins hollering at Dale Ford, like it's the umpire's fault, and Ray Knight (playing the Rusty Staub role of bodyguard/cool counselor) has to calm our Gold Glove first baseman.
Cool focus existing side by side with fuming impatience, giving way to emotions boiling over, and a bad idea or two not quite suppressed. That was Keith. When it mattered most, a huge clutch hit for the club that looked to him. That was Keith. Afterwards, blitzing through Finn MacCool's and who knows how many other bars in epic celebration. That was Keith. And then he got to the parade on time. That was Keith too.
His second life as a pitchman and commentator hasn't been all that different, come to think of it. Yeah, the “Just for Men” ads with Clyde Frazier are dopey, but somehow Keith escapes their cheesiness — he's a player, he's getting a check, and what are you doing taking it so seriously? He embarrassed himself with his small-minded objection to Kelly Calabrese in the Padres' dugout, but being betrayed by your own mouth every now and then is part of being Keith. (His worst moment in my book? Being forced to back down after writing — correctly — that the 2002 Mets had quit. Mike Piazza doth protest too much, methinks. And even then it wasn't long before Keith was defending the essential truth of what he'd said.)
At some point in most any broadcast you'll find Keith being snide or dismissive or indignant. You'll also usually be hugely entertained by whatever he's started ranting about. And you'll almost always turn off the set with a greater appreciation for some fine point of the game. He was smart and impatient and complicated and sometimes his own worst enemy then. He's the same today.
Game on the line, All-Time Mets vs. All-Time Rest of the World, the fate of the universe in the balance. There are nearly 800 guys in our dugout. Who's coming out to hit? Apologies to Rusty and Piazza and Carter and Alfonzo and Olerud and Beltran, but I want No. 17. (Speaking of which, why on earth isn't there a 17 on the left-field wall?) And if Keith's unavailable, if for some reason he's up in the booth? Then there's nobody I'd rather have tell me what to look for as we watch what unfolds.