Keith Hernandez On Baseball, 'Seinfeld' And Being His Own 'Worst Enemy'

Jul 12, 2019

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

You might know our guest Keith Hernandez as a big-league ballplayer or as a memorable guest on two episodes of "Seinfeld." And if you're a New York Mets fan, you'll know him as a color analyst for the team's TV broadcasts. In 17 seasons in the big leagues, Hernandez was known for hitting wicked blind drives and for dazzling defensive plays at first base. He won Gold Glove Awards, a batting title, a Most Valuable Player Award and two World Series rings.

As a broadcaster these days, he's built quite a social media following, at times posting videos of his aging Bengal cat Hadji. Hernandez has a memoir, now out in paperback, which focuses less on his glory days in the game than on times he struggled, especially when he was young and trying to adjust to big-league pressure, big-league pitchers and the stresses of playing every day. The book is called "I'm Keith Hernandez." I spoke with him last year, when his memoir was published.

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DAVIES: Well, Keith Hernandez, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I recently read in the new book about Tiger Woods that his dad put him in a highchair in his garage when he was, like, an infant and had him watch his dad taking golf swings. And then he had him swinging a golf club when he was a toddler. And I read in your book that your dad had a kind of a training rig setup in your garage for your brother and you. Tell us about that and what it meant to you.

KEITH HERNANDEZ: Well, our garage in Pacifica, Calif., didn't have Sheetrock on the ceiling, and it was just all the two-by-fours and the cross bars and the beams. So - and we did have a rafter going across. It was a loft, kind of like - almost like an open attic. And Dad set up, on the middle of the garage - and we were - my brother and I were both left-hand hitters - so he set it up more on the right side of the garage if you were looking at the door so we could take a full swing - a rope tied around one of the two-by-fours and extended the rope down and then put two white cotton athletic socks with a tennis ball in it and then tied it to the rope.

And the rope, at full extension, would be a knee-high strike. We started doing this when we were, like, 6, 7 years old. I mean, it was my brother and I. And then if you wanted to get it up higher to a belt-high strike, you just throw the - you just threw the rope over the two-by-four. If you wanted a high pitch, keep throwing it over, maybe two, three, four times, and it was a high pitch. And the ball would swing like a pendulum. And it would - the arc of the ball going up after we stroked it would hit the underside of the loft, which was, like, one-by-fours. So I marked them - you know, single, out, double, fly ball - and I would swing for hours and play games with that.

And my dad, in the beginning, would watch us swing, make sure we were swinging properly. And eventually, he felt that we had it down pretty good. And you know, he didn't have to watch. I remember him saying when I was older that he'd come home from work - he was a fireman in San Francisco for 30 years - and he'd hear that pounding of the tennis ball against the rafters. And you know, it would give him a headache sometimes. And - but it made him laugh because I was there taking - you know, I was probably 500 to a thousand swings a day. I just absolutely loved it.

DAVIES: Right. And you know, you and your brother weren't just slapping at it because your dad knew something about the game. He would look at your mechanics. Tell us a bit about him. How did he know so much about baseball?

HERNANDEZ: Well, my dad was a minor league player, and he was originally drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers before World War II. He got hit in the head his first year, and his eyes - no helmets those days - eyes progressively got worse. And he eventually played for Cleveland and Oklahoma City and then was traded to the Cardinals and played under Johnny Keane in Houston, where he met my mother. And they got married after the season. He was a very good hitter and a very fine fielding first baseman.

And his career was shortened. And so he put it all - after the war - he served four years in the service - in the Navy at Pearl Harbor in a ship repair unit, played on the U.S. Navy team, which played the U.S. Army team and Army Air Corps. Stan Musial, in '45, played with my father. Ted Williams was playing on the teams - the Marine team. So there was all these ex - all these major leaguers playing in this league, were entertaining the troops, basically.

DAVIES: Yeah. So it's clear you had talent. But it was all of that practice from somebody who knew what he was doing that no doubt honed your skills. You were drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals organization and were a prized prospect. A lot was expected of you. And it took years for you, as you write in the book, to really get your stride as a hitter. And partly that was, you know, adjusting mechanics and learning pitches. But a lot of it was emotional. How did your head get in the way?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I always - I describe my fragility - my emotional fragility. I mean, you're - you come out of high school. You're a star in your little area you grew up. I grew up with the baby boomers, and there was lots of kids to play ball with. And all of a sudden, my first spring training, there's 700 kids in the camp, and there's only eight teams. And I know I'm going to make the team. I got a signing bonus of 30,000, which was unheard of for a 42nd round pick.

But it just - the big adjustment is you play two games a week in summer league in - back in those days, in high school. And now you're playing - I believe it was 128 games scheduled in the minor leagues, something like that. And you're playing every day. And you're not going to hit .500 like you did in high school. I hit .256 in A-ball. I hit .260 in Double-A the next year. And you know, it was tough. It was depressing.

And then you go in slumps, and it's your first experience with slumps. And it's all a learning process. And you're a hotheaded, 18-year-old kid, and you don't know how to handle it. You throw helmets. You throw bats. You kick dirt. And you know - and you've got coaches trying to tell you to calm down and you've got to learn to play this game on an even keel. And it's all part of the process. That's what the minor leagues are about. But it - you know, it takes a long time, and everybody's different. It took me a lot longer.

DAVIES: I think you write at one point that one of your coaches thought you needed to be away from your dad a little bit. I mean, he was such...

HERNANDEZ: Yes.

DAVIES: ...An important influence in your life. Was he - I don't know, a challenge, a burden? Was it difficult with him, too?

HERNANDEZ: Well, when the Cardinals were scouting me, Dad negotiated my contract. They got a sense of the strength and the power of my father. Bob Kennedy - there was an A-ball team in Modesto in the California state league. There was three A-ball teams - Cedar Rapids, St. Pete in the Florida State League - and California state league. Bob Kennedy kept me out of the California state league, which he felt I wasn't ready to play in because that was the top A-ball league. And he put me in the middling Florida State League, which was a tough league.

And he told me years later he wanted to kind of cut the apron strings from my father. So there you go - Bob Kennedy being a real influence on my career.

DAVIES: What - do you think you needed to cut the strings from your father a bit?

HERNANDEZ: Yes, no question. It was the right thing to do because Dad - my brother played in the California state league, and Dad came to all of his games just whenever he could. And that would have drove me crazy. Gary had a different relationship with my father than I did with him. And yes, it was the right thing to do to get me away from him and get me to stand up on my own two feet.

DAVIES: Was he hypercritical? You felt like you just couldn't please him?

HERNANDEZ: Well, he coached us all through Little League, and he was just wonderful. And the parents and the kids were all benefited from his instruction. And he was really terrific with the kids. But once I got into high school, he was so petrified that a coach would ruin me. And it was - in other words, he lost control. And that's when things started to get a little dicey between me and him.

He would always watch whenever he can. He was a fireman. He worked 24 hours, off 48. He had two days off, so he would be at every practice in high school, watching. And it was like, you know, "The Central Scrutinizer," you know, from Frank Zappa's "Joe's Garage" album. I mean, it was just like forever watching. And I would feel - it was like a shroud over me. And I would come home on pins and needles. I didn't know if I would, you know, get laid into or he would smile and praise me. It was kind of a tough situation.

DAVIES: And that continued into your major league career, too, right?

HERNANDEZ: Yes, it did.

DAVIES: Well, I'm sure he was a great guy. And he died in 1992. Right?

HERNANDEZ: He did, ironically, one year after my retirement. So it was too bad he couldn't have lived longer.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Keith Hernandez. His new memoir is called "I'm Keith Hernandez." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Keith Hernandez. He spent 17 years in the big leagues, had World Series teams with the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets. He has a new memoir called "I'm Keith Hernandez."

I want to talk about playing first base. First base is a natural place for collisions. Right? I mean, when there's a ground ball, you're there to catch a throw from the infielder. And hopefully, it's on target. But it might be into the path of the runner, who may not see it...

HERNANDEZ: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Because the runner is busting it down the line, not necessarily looking at the throw. When you could see that was going to happen - the ball was going to be into the path of the runner - did you have techniques for either warning the runner or just trying to avoid getting hurt or hurting the runner?

HERNANDEZ: Well, No. 1, the runner can't run inside the baseline. He's got to be on the chalk. So a throw into him or I got to stretch towards home plate, I feel pretty confident that I'm not going to get hit. It's up to me to make sure that I stride in fair territory towards the ball - I stretch. Excuse me.

And the only time I was ever scared - when I was older, in my last year in Cleveland, Oakland Raider running back that played for Kansas City, All-American Bo Jackson, hit a ground ball to shortstop. And the throw was down the line into him. And I heard him running like - he was like a herd of buffalo.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

HERNANDEZ: I'm not exaggerating. I'd never had that experience before, and I played against some big guys.

He was running so fast, and he was such a big, strong guy that when I - I remember I cringed when I caught the ball just in hopes that he wouldn't clip me on my left shoulder. And he missed me. Thank goodness. I made sure I stretched up the line, but that's the only time ever in my career.

If the throw is too far up the line, you make a judgment. First base was a part of me, and that's also an extension of knowing where the runner is. I have good peripheral vision. I have good sense of where the runner is. Can I come off the bag? Instead of stretching, can I just come off the bag and get the ball and make the tag instead of staying on the bag? I was able to do that. It was just all second nature to me.

The easy part of the game for me was fielding. If hitting could have been as easy as fielding, I would have hit .400.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

The other thing about playing first base, it's the one place where there are a lot of - there's time to converse with an opposing player. A player - a base runner gets on. And you know, I mean, the pitcher and catcher - I mean, the hitter and catcher are near each other, but they're kind of busy. The catcher's getting the signs.

When you're with a runner at first, you're often waiting for the pitcher to get ready. And you can see there's chatter.

HERNANDEZ: Yes.

DAVIES: Is it friendly? Were there guys who'd try and use that to get in your head? Or would you try to get in other players' heads?

HERNANDEZ: I was a chatterbox and for one reason. I would ask the hitters how they felt at the plate. And if a hitter would - it was just the beginning when the - in the old days, you would never talk to the opposing player during a game, before a game in BP. There was no - it was the enemy. And that was starting to change in my era. It started to change in the '60s. And in the '70s, it even got - it advanced further.

But I'd always ask, you know, if a guy came to the - first base, how do you feel at the plate? And if they start, well, you know, I don't feel so good da-da-da-da-da (ph). Oh, man, I feel great. Well, I'm in a hot streak. You know, well, I would relay that information.

DAVIES: To your pitcher.

HERNANDEZ: Rick - yes. And - actually, to the pitching staff and - or the pitching coach. Rick Monday had a funny story. Rick Monday's a very dear friend. He now does radio for the Dodgers. He goes, oh, we're flying into St. Louis. Hernandez is on first base. We better all hit doubles...

(LAUGHTER)

HERNANDEZ: ...So they wouldn't have to talk to me (laughter).

DAVIES: You know, game has changed since you played. I mean, we now have - they count visits to the mound. There are challenges. There are instant replays. What do you think of the game today?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I really feel that they're - the game is going through radical changes. I don't - all the analytics, I'm kind of - when I finished this book, my - I wish it had been nine months later because I'm kind of getting a grasp of analytics. And I'm kind of - I'll never 100% go with them, but I've talked to too many former players, teammates that are in front offices and say, hey, you can really be surprised what you can wean from analytics. It's so precise, so in-depth. OK. Fine. I'm coming around on that.

But still, statistics are sterile. I miss the complete game - the pitcher going nine innings. And you know, I can't blame the pitchers today. That's what - how they're brought up - you know, five innings and they're gone, a hundred pitches, they're gone. I can't sink my teeth into it. I can't wrap my arms around that. I think it lowers the bar. And it's all about excellence, striving to be the best that you can be. I don't want someone to come in and finish that game for me. I want to finish the game - or if it's an inning and you're in trouble and they take him out - which they do because it's a pitch count - let him finish the inning.

So I don't want to go on and on and on. But that's the way the game is, and that's the way it's going to be. And I've come to - I'm at peace with it, so I'm not going to get all riled about it. And it's just the way it is. And I do miss how the game was played before - you know, a couple decades before.

DAVIES: Well, I don't mind you getting riled at all. What about the pace of play?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I think the big culprits are the pitchers. And I see so many 0-2 counts where they've got the hitter really backed up against the wall. I'm in trouble when I'm 0-2. And they don't know how to pitch and put a - blow a pitcher - blow the hitter away. It goes, inevitably, to 3-2. That adds to pitch count. That adds a - now you're not going to go seven innings. Now you're going to go six, maybe five and two-thirds.

And here comes the bullpens. And a lot of the bullpens stink and - guys that come in and don't throw strikes. I've talked to scouts. They look at the guy get the ball the furthest 'cause of home runs in and the pitcher that can throw the hardest. It's no longer pitch to contact.

Warren Spahn wasn't a hard thrower, the greatest left-hander of all time. Warren Spahn had a screwball - watching Warren Spahn pitch was like watching Rembrandt paint a masterpiece - on the corners, low, a little extra here, a little off there, screwball here, up-and-in fastball there. These hard throwers - they don't have the command of their breaking ball. And Major League hitters can hit fastballs, and that makes for long counts and makes for long games. And now you got the analytics, and I'm up there going absolutely out of my mind.

DAVIES: I'm not enough of a baseball geek to really know what Hall of Fame numbers look like, but, I mean, you've won 11 straight Gold Gloves. You were a career .296 hitter with 162 home runs. You had a batting title, an MVP award, two World Series rings. Why aren't you in the Hall of Fame?

HERNANDEZ: Well, my father - I was a really, really good athlete. And I used to be able to run pretty good - not fast, but above average. I stole 19 or - 19 bases in 1982. Home runs - made a lot. I played in St. Louis. It was 386 in the gaps. It was 335 down the lines.

DAVIES: Big park.

HERNANDEZ: It was a huge park.

DAVIES: Yeah.

HERNANDEZ: And it was sunken and underground one street level. And the only open-air part of the ballpark was from left-center to right-center, and it would blow in. And when it got hot in the summer, you had to hit line drives. And we called it Death Valley. And I was a line drive hitter anyway.

So the 162 home runs, whatever it is - you know, if I'd have played at Wrigley Field or if I'd have played at Veterans Stadium or Three Rivers Stadium, I probably would've hit over two home - 200 home runs, and that would've helped, which means more RBI. I drove in over a thousand runs. So I lost some time playing with some two-strikes and two lockouts, you know? Those are games that won across the board that I wasn't able to play.

DAVIES: Does it bother you that you're not in the...

HERNANDEZ: No, and I'll tell you why. When it's all said and done and I'm long gone, who's going remember? And you know, I'm not going to worry about it. What bothers me the most, Dave, is my .300 lifetime batting average. I'm at .296.

And ironically, my childhood idol - born on the same birthday as him - Mickey Mantle, October 20 - when I got my first baseball card and I saw that, he was my idol. I always had a 7 on my back. That is Mickey's pet peeve. I read in his biography that he lost, 'cause of injury - he stayed around too long - he lost his .300 lifetime batting average. And ironically, I'm in the same boat. I'm a .300 hitter. I'm not a .296 hitter.

DAVIES: Keith Hernandez, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

HERNANDEZ: I can't thank you enough for having me.

DAVIES: Keith Hernandez is now a broadcaster for New York Mets games. His book, now in paperback, is called "I'm Keith Hernandez."

After a break, we'll remember former pitcher Jim Bouton, whose book "Ball Four" is still regarded as a classic, and actor Rip Torn, best known as the gruff producer Artie on "The Larry Sanders Show." Both died this week. Also, John Powers reviews the British television series "London Kills." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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