Keith Hernandez, Hero of ’86 Mets, Navigates His Life After Baseball

Keith Hernandez is alive and well and living on the East Side, but he hasn’t found anything that gets him going as much as playing baseball. Everybody in New York remembers the player he was as the New York Mets’ first baseman from 1983 to 1989. He was the kind of alert, intense, aggressive character the Mets of ’99 don’t really have. Since his ballplaying days came to a quiet, gloomy end in Cleveland in 1991, he has had to face that terrifying question: What do I do now?

“It took a long time for Keith to get involved,” said his agent, David Katz. “It’s only been in the last couple of years that he’s really started to get moving.”

“My agent would always throw me a little piece of work here and there,” Mr. Hernandez said. “Then finally he said, ‘I think it’s time you went to work.'”

Work for Mr. Hernandez has lately consisted of fill-in duty as a commentator for Mets television broadcasts. On those rare days when he’s in the booth, he has a digressive style-he managed to weigh in on David Hare’s Via Dolorosa during a broadcast early this season-complete with sudden sharp baseball insights drawn from years of intense training and study in the game.

One recent Wednesday, Mr. Hernandez went over to the West Side for a morning appointment with his analyst. Cutting out of the session 15 minutes early, he jogged through Central Park, bum knee and all, then down to his 28th-floor apartment in midtown.

He checked his messages. There were none. At 45, he didn’t look much different from the man who won a Gold Glove every season from 1978 to 1988.

“For me,” he said, “a night out now is just eating out. I love eating at new restaurants, restaurants that are just opened. I went to the Palladin at the Time Hotel the other night. That’s my idea of a night out. An 8 o’clock dinner, and you’re done by 10:30 and depending on where I am, I go up to Elaine’s. Elaine’s is great. It’s got some history to it. It’s an older crowd. I don’t go to the Spy Bar. That’s over for me. It’s over. And I really don’t like sitting at a bar just for the sake of drinking more. Usually, I’m in bed around 12. I’ve passed the baton. They can have it. I’ve heard so many times, ‘Oh, you should go to this place, it’s hot.’ And I go and I’m 45 and everyone’s 21 in there. And, sure, they’re beautiful and they’re good-looking models and good-looking actresses in there, and I know that age is only a state of mind, and I certainly don’t feel 45, but that’s just not my scene anymore.”

In the living room, there was a special wine storage refrigerator. Lining the bookshelves were hundreds of hardcovers from the Easton Press Great Books collection. The room also had a 27-inch TV, with dozens of videocassettes stuffed in the console beneath it- I, Claudius , Lawrence of Arabia , The Princess Bride , The Crying Game , Easy Rider , King of Comedy . On the glass dining room table was a piece of notebook paper listing retired athletes (Wayne Gretzky, John McEnroe) whom Mr. Hernandez was considering for a celebrity golf tournament-which he may or may not put together later this summer. The apartment’s second bedroom had a Cross-Country Climber in the corner and a computer. On a shelf between two World Series trophies (St. Louis Cardinals, 1982, New York Mets, 1986) there was a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica .

On his refrigerator were pictures of his three daughters; inside it was a carton of Tropicana orange juice, and that was about it.

Mr. Hernandez, who was divorced in 1988, said he’s been seeing someone for the past year. “For all the stuff that’s been written about me, I’ve always had one girlfriend in the city,” he said. “If there was any naughtiness, it was on the road.”

On the walls there were paintings of women. One of them was painted by his father, the late John Hernandez, who was once a prospect for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Mr. Hernandez stepped out onto the terrace and peeled off his plain white T-shirt, draped it over the railing. He gestured in the direction of downtown. “I can’t live down there,” he said. “I’m too claustrophobic.” He stepped back inside and went into the bathroom for a shower.

He had his demons as a player. Maybe that’s part of why New York embraced him. The Mets got him cheap from the Cardinals on June 15, 1983, for pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey, at a time when drug rumors were swirling around him. In truth, he was in his third year of serious cocaine use at the time-a habit he says he broke on his own that same year. In 1985, along with other Major League players, he was called on to testify in the grand jury trial of drug dealer Curtis Strong; during his time on the stand, he called cocaine “the devil on this earth.”

Growing up in Pacifica, Calif., he was driven to baseball excellence by his father, who became a fireman in San Francisco after his own baseball days were done. When Keith and his brother Gary were kids, the father gave them hours and hours of batting practice and fielding practice as well as tests-written tests-on the fundamentals of the game.

By the time he became a Met, off the drugs and away from Whitey Herzog, the autocratic manager of the Cardinals, Mr. Hernandez blossomed into a team leader. He served as an on-field coach, using his knowledge of hitters to guide the Mets’ young pitchers (Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Walt Terrell, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez) through the tough at-bats. He also continued the incredible fielding-including those kamikaze bunt charges-that made him perhaps the best defensive first baseman ever.

Mr. Hernandez emerged from the shower in a white towel. He got dressed in a polo shirt and shorts and we went down to Pescatore restaurant a couple blocks from his apartment. We got a table overlooking the sidewalk. He ordered a plate of pasta and a bottle of sparkling water. Occasionally, some guy on the street would pass by and yell out something like, “What’s up, Keith?” and Mr. Hernandez would tip his cap.

A co-winner, with Willie Stargell, of the 1979 Most Valuable Player award, Mr. Hernandez was miserable upon his arrival in New York. The Mets were a last-place club in the throes of rebuilding. But he soon realized the team was going places.

“Whitey thought he was going to bury my ass in New York when he traded me here,” he said. “He had no idea what the minor league system was like. He thought he was going to stick me here to suffer for two years. Didn’t happen. There was such a wealth of talent. And it was just amazing to see it all come together in ’84. It revitalized my career. All this exuberance. I was going through all sorts of things-I was separated from my wife. I was a little bit of a burnout at that time.”

He signed a five-year, $8.4 million contract.

“What a wealth of talent coming out of a minor league farm system,” Mr. Hernandez said, recalling those mid-80’s Mets. “The scouts, they did not squander their draft picks. That was the most talent I’ve seen in a farm system, all come up, all be ready to play at the same time. You had [Wally] Backman, [Mike] Fitzgerald, who we traded to Montreal, Darryl, Darling, Walt Terrell, Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell, Roger McDowell, it’s just amazing. [Rick] Aguilera. Incredible. I was very lucky.”

Mr. Hernandez led the Mets to a World Series in ’86 and National League East title in ’88. Both casual and arrogant, shy and aggressive, he seemed to stalk the infield, telling fielders where to field and pitchers what to pitch. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. And during the Mets, improbable rally in Game 6 against the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series, Mr. Hernandez was in the manager’s office with a Budweiser, figuring the game was done.

By the end of the 80’s, puzzlingly, the decade’s most talented team had won only one World Series. Soon general manager Frank Cashen and owners Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday went about breaking up that bunch of cocky marauders, bringing aboard young, bland players like Dave Magadan and Gregg Jefferies. By 1989, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman, Tim Teufel, Bobby Ojeda, Kevin Elster had all been released or traded.

“Egos started getting involved,” Mr. Hernandez said. “We started breaking up from within. And then ’89 was a disaster and ’89 was no fun. The team was so ripped apart. It was almost like an insurrection, a usurping of the throne. All it takes is a few people. We had a few clubhouse lawyers in the team. Management tried to create a team around Jefferies. But he had no position. There were a lot of guys who were jealous of him, that he was sort of tapped as the golden boy of the organization, which he didn’t deserve. He just never blended in with the team. The biggest mistake they made was getting rid of Mookie. It wasn’t like he was a right-handed hitter who couldn’t hit right-handers, so you platoon him like Teufel and Backman. Wally couldn’t hit right-handers. Mookie could hit both sides of the plate. Mookie was the pro, the veteran who played every day and accepted platooning. But then they both want to play every day. O.K. So I would have kept Dykstra, because he was younger, and gotten something for Mookie and then you have your center fielder in Dykstra for the next 10 years. But then they turned around and traded Lenny. Crazy. Lenny was kind of the wild guy, and Mets were starting to get paranoid about their image. That was in the late 80’s, when sports teams in general were beginning to worry about how their athletes behaved and having lily-white players. So then they put Juan Samuel in center field and he’s not a center fielder. Now we were weak in two positions defensively. We had a guy on second base, Jefferies, who’d never played second base. You’d try to teach him to pivot for the double play and he couldn’t really do it. All he had played was third base-and he couldn’t play that, either.”

Remember the gardening accident that left Bobby Ojeda with a cut on his pitching hand? Mr. Hernandez does.

“On that ’88 team, if Ojeda doesn’t cut off his finger, we beat the Dodgers,” Mr. Hernandez said. “He was our No. 2 pitcher and we had a pretty good starting five: Darling, Gooden, Sid, Ojeda, Cone. At that time, Coney wasn’t tough yet. If I had to pick two pitchers to pitch a game you had to have on the road, Coney wasn’t ready yet-it would have been Ojeda and Gooden. Ojeda won Game 2 in Houston in ’86. We won 5-1. He pitched a gem. He didn’t have shit that day and he won the game. He had nothing. He was just a gutty pitcher. Ojeda won Game 3 in Boston on the road, down 0-2 in the series. Ojeda, he and Doc, awesome. Ojeda.”

Mr. Hernandez’s pals from that Mets team-reliever Roger McDowell, Mr. Ojeda and Mr. Dykstra-are no longer in New York.

“I haven’t talked to Lenny in a while,” Mr. Hernandez said. “He’ll blow into town and call me around midnight and say, ‘Dude, I’m in town, let’s go get a drink.’ I go, ‘Lenny, why didn’t you call me at 6 o’ clock or yesterday? Then I would be ready for you.’ Lenny. Ojeda disappeared. He’s in Jersey somewhere. If McDowell lived in a New York, we would be the best of friends. I’d love to see them again.”

In 1989, the Mets sent Mr. Hernandez to Cleveland, where he spent two injury-plagued years. “The organization and the press buried me,” he said. After his retirement, he rarely looked at a game for three years. He logged a lot of time at Elaine’s. Publicist Bobby Zarem introduced him to the New York social scene. He started seeing a therapist.

“I started going to therapy about five times a week,” he said. “I wanted to find out about myself. I didn’t like the direction I was going as a person. I can honestly say it was probably the best decision I ever made. As a matter of fact, it was the best decision I ever made. I found out who I am and how to stay away from traps that I was falling into. I’ve always been a very impulsive person and I wanted to find out why I was making the decisions I was making. Therapy doesn’t really solve any problems, but it shows you how you’re thinking. If I had been able to do this when I was player, I don’t know if it would have made me a better player, but it certainly would have tamed me. It would have been a positive thing. We all have our insecurities. If you meet someone who’s a braggart, you’re only seeing from the outside. Who knows how he feels about himself? Who knows what’s going on inside? I’ll be the first one to admit that I was a very frail and emotionally-how should I put this-insecure person inside. I would have slumps early in my career. I lacked confidence in myself. I would go into these slumps and they would bother me and I probably would have handled them better with therapy. I would go about 6 for 52, 7 for 58. I would go crazy if I wasn’t helping the team. There was only one year when I didn’t go into a slump. That was 1980, when I hit .321 and lost the batting title to [Bill] Buckner on the last day of the season. In ’84 and ’79, I hit .230 in April and nothing under .320 for the rest of the season. In ’84 I had two .380 months. I felt I should have been M.V.P. in ’84, not [Ryne] Sandberg. I feel I can say that now. I was very disappointed. But I think with the drug trials coming up-and you don’t think baseball knew I was going to be involved? Please-and the voting, it wasn’t even close. It’s just a theory. But it would have been quite an honor to win the M.V.P. twice for two different teams. That would have put me in some select company.”

In his post-retirement forays, it must be said that Mr. Hernandez has a good batting average. In his appearance in a 1992 hourlong Seinfeld episode, he was perfect as a barfly version of himself. And his 1994 book, Pure Baseball , was not the usual specimen of jock literature. A pitch-by-pitch examination of two games chosen almost at random and co-written with Mike Bryan, Pure Baseball was in the mold of Roger Angell’s baseball pieces in The New Yorker – only more so.

Mr. Hernandez looks at this year’s Mets-the $68 million wonders who lose 16-0 to the Braves and then beat the Yankees in a heart-stopper-and sees something missing. The team is talented, with solid hitters like John Olerud and Mike Piazza, but somehow unsteady.

“They just need one leader,” he said. “It has to be an everyday player and it has to be someone on the infield, an everyday player who has the respect of his teammates. A leader has to be a Pete Rose, a Willie Stargell, a Lou Brock. Philadelphia would have never won if Pete Rose had not gone over there. And once Willie Stargell left the Pirates, they never won again.”

After learning the game from his father, Mr. Hernandez found a second mentor in Mr. Brock, an outfielder for the Cardinals and stolen-base champ. “Lou Brock told me something just when I was starting to come into my own. Lou said, ‘Hey, even if I was your age, the leader of the team has to be in the infield. He can’t be an outfielder. I can’t come in when the pitcher is in trouble and needs a boost of confidence.’ Lou was grooming me for that. I was a shy person around strangers, but not around my teammates. On this team now, Olerud is very laid back. Piazza appears to be laid back or else he’s very defensive. [Robin] Ventura is not a real vocal guy. He’s a journeyman, a blue-collar worker. That was a great pickup for them. Edgardo Alfonzo’s laid back, and [Rey] Ordonez is a kook. He’s not going to be a leader for them. They still need pitching. You’re always worried about that. Their starting staff is getting a little older. And their bullpen and Franco, how much farther can he go? It’s always an adventure with him. [Armando] Benitez, he does a great job. I like [Dennis] Cook a lot. It’s too bad you can’t use him more. He’s out of the old mold. [Al] Leiter is going to come around now. [Bobby] Jones has elbow problems. I like Reed. He’ll keep you in the game. I like [Masato] Yoshii. Their bullpen’s been doing a hell of a job. I think their pitching is hurting with Jones out. No one can afford to lose starting pitching unless you’re five deep.”

Mr. Hernandez doesn’t like the offensive explosion in baseball the last few seasons.

“They’ve given a great advantage to the hitter. Calling the higher strike doesn’t really help out the pitcher. Any pitcher would tell you that now you can’t get an inside strike call. And if they had their choice of a letter-high strike and the corner, they would choose the inside. You just can’t throw at a hitter anymore and you can’t brush them back. It was different when I first started out. Could you imagine Mo Vaughn, if they were pitching inside to him with his whole body hanging out over the plate like it does? If Bob Gibson were pitching to him? See ya later, pal. I like Mo, he’s a lovely guy. But something’s gone. Baseball was just adding more runs for the fans. After the strike year, they were worried that the fans weren’t coming back. But I’ve always enjoyed a 3-1, 4-3, 1-0 game-a well played, crisply played game with good pitching. People say the season’s too long. Seven months with 20 days off-that’s the beauty of the game. The perseverance and the will. It’s a game of perseverance and will and power and strength.”

Mr. Hernandez said he has no desire to be a manager.

“I kind of made a promise to myself that I would never get back into uniform. Maybe if it was like 50 years ago and there were all day games I might consider it, but no way would I do it with all the night games they play, because there’s no life for you. If you’re married, when are you going to see your wife and kids? And if you’re single, when are you going to meet someone? I’ve moved on to a different point in my life. I’ve lost the dedication that goes into baseball. I gave it 100 percent attention. I don’t even want to swing a baseball bat. It’s over for me. My life now is in New York. My life has unlimited horizons.”

Lunch was over. It was 3:15 P.M. A sinewy woman in a black tube top strolled by, sucking on a lemon ice.

“Who is this drink of water coming down here? Wow!” he said as she passed by. “Probably gets looked at all the time.” He shook his head and adjusted his sunglasses. “Oh, well.”