I don’t usually look at the Pennysaver. A pile of them, chock full of come-ons for discounted liquor, same-day service on dry cleaning and excellent prices on demolition and rubbish removal, is left in our lobby once a week and I walk right by without a glance. But a few weeks ago, the back page was facing up from the top of the pile and it caught my attention. There was a glamour shot of Keith Hernandez, probably from his acting days (or day), telling me to sell my coins and jewelry at Coin Galleries of Oyster Bay.
On one hand, it wasn’t a surprising endorsement since I had seen him in a local cable ad for the same establishment. On the other hand, I nearly dropped my groceries when I saw it. What the fudge was the great Keith Hernandez doing shilling for some coin store? It instantly brought to mind the time in 1982 my father told me heard something on the news about Mark Gastineau autographing pumpkins on Jericho Turnpike to make a few bucks before Halloween during the NFL players’ strike.
Keith Hernandez should not be doing anything that reminds anybody of Mark Gastineau. But he does. He endorses Coin Galleries of Oyster Bay (now with 2 locations to serve you!). He broadcasts other people’s dates alongside Clyde Frazier. He recently popped up on eBay offering a signed Keith Hernandez jersey as a bonus if you were high bidder on a Mercedes from a Palm Beach-area dealership. I assume he is compensated in satisfactory fashion by Long Island’s Largest Rare Coin Store just as he is by Just For Men Haircolor, just as he probably gets a break on a car in Florida.
If you see him in these gigs, let alone his analyst role on SNY, Keith Hernandez comes off as something of a cartoon figure (and not just because he has been animated as a cartoon figure by the very same network). As our blolleagues at Zisk Online have dutifully recorded since 2006, he has very much become Crazy Keith, tittering over names like Jon Coutlangus and Pete LaCock, roaming tangents regarding wine and lollipops and generally playing the cranky, kooky uncle card that ex-ballplayers have been known to play in front of a camera or behind a microphone.
Which is fine, I suppose. Keith’s long retired. He makes a nice living striking strange poses, so good for him. But I was reminded twice this month that this Keith is nothing like the Keith whom we met so long ago.
Two very thoughtful people (my best friend Chuck and Bronx Banter blogger Alex Belth), acting independent of one another, saw fit to Xerox and mail me a chapter from William Nack’s My Turf, a collection of articles from the writer most famous for covering horse racing and boxing for Sports Illustrated. I remember reading an amazing piece Nack wrote about Secretariat, but I didn’t know he once profiled Keith Hernandez. That’s the chapter Chuck and Alex each sent me, the one titled “He’s Still Not Home Free,” originally published in 1986 just prior to that postseason.
If you weren’t around during the last indisputable glory epoch of Mets baseball and your entire exposure to Hernandez is post-Seinfeld, boy would you be in for a surprise if you read this timeless piece. All at once, I was jarred to the mid-1980s when the last thing Keith Hernandez at the height of his Mets career would be mistaken for was a cartoon.
The article dealt mostly with Hernandez’s family situation, specifically the father whose presence never stopped weighing on him. We used to hear about John Hernandez when Keith was Mex, the Gold Glove fielder, the clutch hitter, the leader of men. It is Met lore that John urged Keith to stick it out with the Mets after his trade from St. Louis, that his contacts throughout baseball said there was young talent on the way up, that the dad watched the son on the satellite dish, detected something awry with his swing and set him straight. What wasn’t commonly mentioned was the searing nature of the relationship.
“I knew he was watching and I couldn’t stand him watching,” Keith told Nack of the dish fallout. “I’d be in the on-deck circle and I’d be thinking about him. I’d go oh for 4 and I’d say to myself, ‘Sit there and squirm.'”
That’s some heavy stuff, but nothing you wouldn’t have expected as an eager spectator to Keith Hernandez’s m.o. back in the day. Everything about Hernandez dripped with intensity and was drenched in drama. It was an article of faith circa 1986 that you shouldn’t get up to buy a hot dog if you knew Darryl Strawberry was coming to bat in the bottom of the inning. Well, you couldn’t leave your seat for any of the Met seasons in which Keith Hernandez was in his prime. You had to watch him work a count, jaw at his pitcher, confront his catcher, bear down on a bunter, give a quote. It is not hometown bias that leads me to say that Keith Hernandez was the most fascinating player I ever saw.
Nobody is second.
Nack found contemporary peer agreement. During the September 1985 stretch when Keith was dealing with a grand jury and a pennant race, he hit .373 in just over a hundred at-bats. Said former teammate Hubie Brooks from the Expo dugout, “I’ve never seen a guy, no matter what he has gone through, play like that under pressure.”
Of Keith when he supplemented rookie backstop Mike Fitzgerald’s limited knowledge of opponents with torrents of his own, Ed Lynch said, “He knew every hitter in the league. He always reminded you: ‘This guy is a high-ball hitter. Make him hit a breaking ball…’ ‘Good fastball hitter.’ If the count was 0-2, he’d say, ‘Way ahead. Don’t make a mistake.’ If Einstein starts talking about the speed of light, you better listen to him.”
Lenny Dykstra: “I can’t remember an at-bat I’ve had when he’s not on the on-deck circle giving me information.”
Rafael Santana: “He told me, ‘Anything you need from me, any advice, just ask.'”
Ron Darling: “The no-decisions had been piling up, and I was a little down. When I got back to my room, there was a bottle of Dom Perignon waiting, with a note from Keith, ‘Enjoy this. I hope it will help you forget. Your friend, Keith.'”
Darryl Strawberry: “He’s my best friend on this ball club. I love him.”
That’s my Keith Hernandez, my Mex. The one on TV and in the Pennysaver, Crazy Keith? He’s somebody else as far as I can tell.
There’s a quote of which I’m most fond, from the movie Atlantic City. Burt Lancaster masterfully plays an aged small-time hood, Lou Pascal, who, like the title locale, has clearly seen better days. Given the chance to impress an even smaller-time hood who comes to town for a big score, he weaves a story of how he used to rub out those who needed disappearing and then jump into the Atlantic Ocean to cleanse himself of the deed he had done, rambling on to this drug dealer he has taken under his wing that things just don’t measure up to the way they used to be.
“You,” Lou Pascal insists, “should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”