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Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday …Keith Hernandez

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Hernandez the cardinalKeith HernandezKeith Hernandez the Met

 

One of the most important trades in Met history is the Keith Hernandez trade from the St Louis Cardinals. It set the foundation for other moves to come that put together the 1986 New York Mets World Championship. Hernandez who was used to winning with the Cardinals ended up on the perennial loser but after the trade slowly you could see things changing for the Mets and Cashen the GM that made the trade, who wanted veteran leadership like Hernandez to provide for the current and future Mets on the way.

Hernandez wore uniform number 18 for the first two years of his career. In 1976, he switched to number 37, insisting that his uniform number end with a “7” in honor of Mickey Mantle (with whom he shared a birthday). While Hernandez became more comfortable with his bat, he was always recognized as a fielder first, snatching his first Gold Glove Award away from perennial winner Steve Garvey in 1978. In 1979, however, Hernandez’s bat exploded as he led the league with a .344 batting average, 48 doubles, and 116 runs scored, and went on to share the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award with Willie Stargell.

From there, Hernandez became a perennial .300 hitter, and one of the top stars in the National League. His Cardinals won the 1982 World Series, defeating the Milwaukee Brewers in seven games. In Game six, Hernandez and Cardinal catcher Darrell Porter hit home runs in a 13-1 St. Louis victory. Hernandez also contributed eight runs batted in during the seven-game World Series.

After multiple disagreements with Cardinal management, most notably manager Whitey Herzog, Hernandez was traded to the Mets on June 15, 1983 for pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey. Herzog felt that Hernandez had become a cancer on his team and never regretted the trade.[

The Mets had retired number 37 for former manager Casey Stengel, so Hernandez switched to number 17 upon joining the club, which he wore for the remainder of his career. As a result of this trade, Hernandez went from a World Series champion to a team that narrowly avoided a hundred losses (68-94), and consistently finished at the bottom of the National League East. Hernandez, however, was determined to prove Herzog wrong, helping to fuel a rivalry between the two teams in the mid-1980s.

Under new manager Davey Johnson, the 1984 Mets did a complete 180, finishing 90-72, and six games ahead of the Cardinals in the NL East (6.5 games behind division winner Chicago Cubs). Hernandez finished second in the NL Most Valuable Player voting behind Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg, and emerged as the Captain of the Mets’ young core of ballplayers that included 1983 Rookie of the Year Darryl Strawberry, Ron Darling, Wally Backman and 1984 Rookie of the Year, Dwight Gooden.

Hernandez had such a strong and accurate throwing arm that, as a result, the Mets re-routed their relays through him. Due to his quick instincts, Hernandez was also able to play farther off first base than other first basemen, allowing the other infielders to play farther to their right.

Hernandez played so aggressively at first base that he occasionally discouraged opponents to bunt merely by reputation. Pete Rose, when he managed the Cincinnati Reds, compared bunting against Hernandez to “driving the lane against Bill Russell.” Astros manager Hal Lanier said the combination of Hernandez at first and any one of three Mets pitchers— Ron Darling, Roger McDowell or Jesse Orosco— made bunting against the Mets “near impossible,” and Cubs manager Jim Frey said he wouldn’t ask most pitchers to bunt against the Mets. “You’re just asking for a forceout at second, and now you’ve got your pitcher running the bases,” he said.

Hernandez also revolutionized the position— until umpires disallowed what he did— by taking pickoff throws while essentially squatting in foul territory so that he could make tags to his right more readily. Positioning oneself in foul territory is now illegal, according to official baseball rules, which state that all defensive players except the catcher must be positioned in fair territory while the ball is pitched.

For more details on this topic, see Pittsburgh drug trials.

In 1985, Hernandez’s previous cocaine use (and distribution of the drug to other players),[8] which had been the subject of persistent rumors and the chief source of friction between Hernandez and Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, became a matter of public record as a result of the Pittsburgh trial of drug dealer Curtis Strong. MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth found that Hernandez was among seven players who had used cocaine and been involved in its distribution. The players received season-long suspensions, where were commuted on condition that they donated ten percent of their base salaries to drug-abuse programs, submitted to random drug testing, and contributed 100 hours of drug-related community service.

In the meantime, the Mets and Cardinals became embroiled in a heated rivalry atop the National League East, with Hernandez and newly acquired All-star catcher Gary Carter leading the charge for the Mets. The season came down to the wire as the Mets won 98 games that season, however, they narrowly lost the division to a Cardinals team that won 101 games. The Mets had three players finish in the top ten in NL MVP balloting that season (Gooden 4th, Carter 6th and Hernandez 8th). Meanwhile, the “Redbirds” placed four players in the top ten (Tommy Herr 5th, John Tudor tied Hernandez at 8th, Jack Clark 10th, and winner Willie McGee), as well as having the eleventh place finisher (Vince Coleman).

Hernandez set a record for game-winning RBIs in 1985 with 24, a statistic that was only official from 19801988 (the previous record was 22 by the Chicago White Sox‘s Harold Baines in 1983). His career total is 129, which is also a record.

Hernandez credits his father, who played ball with Stan Musial when they were both in the Navy during World War II, for helping him out of a batting slump in 1985. His father would observe his at-bats on TV and note that when Keith was hitting well, he could see both the “1” and the “7” on his uniform on his back as he began to stride into the pitch. Not seeing both numbers meant Keith was bailing out on inside pitches, trying too hard to pull the ball, and vulnerable to outside fastballs or outside breaking pitches.

1986 World Series Champions

Hernandez and the Mets would not be denied in 1986, winning 108 games and taking the National League East convincingly by 21.5 games over the Philadelphia Phillies. Hernandez hit .310 with 83 RBI. The Mets won the 1986 World Series in seven games over the Boston Red Sox. Hernandez batted only .231, and recorded the second out in the now legendary tenth inning of game six of that World Series. On the Mets’ World Champion team in 1986, Carter and Hernandez finished third and fourth, respectively, in NL MVP balloting.

Team captain

Given his “Mickey Mantlesque” approach to playing baseball in New York, and the celebrity status that comes with it, Hernandez became the poster-boy for the “party hard; play harder” Mets of the ’80s. In 1987, Davey Johnson named Hernandez the first team captain in franchise history. A season after the “C” was added to Hernandez’s uniform, Carter was named co-captain.

In 1988, Hernandez won his eleventh and final Gold Glove, and led his team to another division crown. The heavily favored Mets, however, lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 National League Championship Series. Both Hernandez and Carter were in the twilights of their careers as back, knee and hamstring problems limited Hernandez to only 95 games. Carter, meanwhile, batted .242 for the season, and famously struggled to hit his 300th career home run.

Hernandez’s batting average fell to .233 in only 75 games for the 1989 Mets. The Mets chose not to re-sign him after his contract ran out at the close of the 1989 season, and on November 13, he was granted free agency. A day later, the Mets released Carter.

Eleven different Mets players have worn his number 17 in the 16 seasons since Hernandez left, most notably pitcher David Cone. In 1991, Cone switched from 44 to 17 in tribute to Hernandez.[10] Former teammates Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda and Roger McDowell have also worn number 17 in tribute to Hernandez for teams they played for after leaving the Mets.

Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday salutes …Keith Hernandez.

MLB debut
August 30, 1974 for the St. Louis Cardinals
Last MLB appearance
July 24, 1990 for the Cleveland Indians
Career statistics
Batting average .296
Home runs 162
Runs batted in 1,071
Teams
Career highlights and awards
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