Oct 19, 2019

All Time Mets First Baseman: Keith Hernandez (Part One- St. Louis & the Early Mets Years)

Keith Hernandez was born on October 20th, 1953 in San Francisco California.

The six foot left handed hitting first baseman, became known as "Mex". He & his father both hated the nick name, since he is not Mexican, but has family roots (on his fathers side) in Spain. His mother was of Scottish / Irish dissent.

He attended high School at San Bruno California. He was a star player in high school but did not get along with his coach. He even sat out his senior year after a major dispute with that coach. He was eventually drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971 as a 42nd round pick.

After being an average hitter, he changed his style & it all came together by 1973. That year had his best hitting season, at AAA Tulsa he batted .333. 

He made his MLB debut on August 30, 1974 at his hometown, in Candlestick Park, San Francisco in a 8-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants. He got his first career hit off Mike Cauldwell in the 9th inning, driving in Bake McBride with his first ever RBI.

The next year the Cardinals traded away Joe Torre to the New York Mets, to open the door for Hernandez at first base. To quickly run through his Cardinals career; he spent nine and a half seasons as the team's first baseman winning an MVP Award & a World Series title there. 

After wearing the uniform #18 he switched to #37 insisting it ended in a 7, in honor of Mickey Mantle, whom he shared a birthday with.  In 1976 he batted .289 followed up by .291 in 1977. That year he hit 41 doubles & scored 90 runs for the first of two straight seasons.

Hernandez was an outstanding first baseman & was recognized as the leagues best fielding first baseman, taking over the reign from the Dodgers Steve Garvey. Hernandez won his first Gold Glove in 1978, starting a string of 11 consecutive years winning the Award.

In 1979 he broke out & became a star player. That year he won the NL batting title (.344) & led the league in doubles (48) & runs scored (116), while winning a co-MVP Award with the Pirates Willie Stargell. It was the only time two players received the same amount of votes by the BWAA. 

That year he drove in 105 runs, the only time he would pass the 100 RBI mark, although he drove in 90 or more six times. He also posted an on base % of .417 for the third place Cardinals.
Hernandez became one of the games better hitters, driving the ball for base hits, doubles & run production, driving in 90 runs or more four times in his Cardinal career. Although he was not a power hitter, he would never hit more than 18 HRs in his career. He hit for good averages, batting over .300 three times & .290 or better six times in his first nine seasons with the Cardinals.

Hernandez also drew a lot of walks, while put up excellent on base percentages, leading the league in that category in 1980 (.408) & posting .400% or better four times as a Cardinal. 

As the eighties began, Whitey Herzog eventually became the St. Louis manager. He & Hernandez would have an explosive relationship. In 1980 Keith led the NL in runs scored (111) & on base & (.408) while batting .321 which was second to the Cubs; Bill Buckner of all people. 

He fell short of the 100 RBI mark, driving in 99 runs. In the wacky strike shortened 1981 season he batted .306 playing in just 108 games.

By 1982 the Cardinals were one of the NL's best teams winning 90 games. They defeated the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS. Hernandez batted .299 with 33 doubles 7 HRs 94 RBIs with a career high 100 walks posting a .397 on base %.

1982 Post Season: In the 1982 post season, he began going 4-12 (.333) with an RBI in the NLCS sweep over the Atlanta Braves. He drove in his only run in the Cards 6-2 win at Atlanta in Game #3.

1982 World Series: In the World Series against the Milwaukee Brewers, he went hitless in the first four games before getting hot. 

In Game #5 at Milwaukee, he hit a pair of doubles driving in two runs in the 6-4 Cardinal loss. 

In Game #6 back in St. Louis, he got two more hits driving in four runs, including a 4th inning two run HR off Don Sutton in the 13-1 Cardinals romp, forcing a Game Seven.

Game #7 Legacy: In that Game #7, he came to bat against his old high school team mate; Bob McClure with the bases loaded & St. Louis down 3-1 in the 6th inning. Hernandez drove a single to right center field scoring Lonnie & Ozzie Smith with the tying runs. The Cards went on to a 6-3 win & won the World Series. In the Series he drove in eight runs the most by any player & hit .259, with seven hits & one HR.

Fresh off the St. Louis Cardinals Championship season, Hernandez continued to have disagreements with the teams management. His stormy relationship with Manager Whitey Herzog escalated to an even worse level.

The Manager felt Hernandez was a bad influence on his the teams younger players. There were rumors of drug use & other bad habits that were affecting his attitude as well as the teams. In those days he was looked at having a rather casual attitude toward the game with a lack of hustle.

Finally on the June 15th 1983 Trade deadline, Keith Hernandez was traded to the New York Mets in exchange for Neil Allen & Rick Ownbey. It was a major acquisition for the Mets & a moment where that turned the franchise around for the better.

At first he was unhappy about being traded from the reigning World Champions to the last place Mets, who had been in shambles for years. But there was a new vibe in the air at Shea Stadium, with lots of good young players on the horizon. Hernandez was now to step up his game to the highest level in the largest media market in the country & a legend was made. The All Star was now to become a superstar in New York.

He was determined to prove the Cardinals wrong for trading him & this led to an even higher level of play. This also help fuel what became an intense rivalry between the Mets & Cards through the mid to late eighties.

With a glove, he certainly the best defensive first baseman of his time & possibly the best the position has ever seen. He would win eleven Gold Gloves in his career, six with the New York Mets. With his glove he led the league in double plays turned six times, assists five times, put outs four times, fielding twice & games played once.

He would anchor the infield, positioning the fielders & coach his pitchers how to pitch to a hitter as well. He was animated & very intense both at bat & on the field. At first he would take pick off throws squatting in foul territory, as to make an easier tag to his right but a rule was made making that illegal. He would also stand in front of base runners, while at his position to block the view of the batter from them. He would also play far off the bag, because his range was so good & his positioning would close up the infield gap.

His quickness allowed him to also stop balls hit down the line. He would often be used as a cutoff man from throws from the outfield as well, since he had such a strong accurate throwing arm. He was certainly the most aggressive first baseman, as he would run down the line when he thought a player was going to attempt to bunt. It was said many times he discouraged opponents from attempting a sacrifice, just by his reputation.

While managing the Reds, Pete Rose, compared bunting against Hernandez to "driving the lane against Bill Russell". Jim Frey, the Chicago Cubs manager, said he wouldn't ask most pitchers to bunt against the Mets. "You're just asking for a force out at second, and now you've got your pitcher running the bases" .

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."

The Met fans quickly fell in love with him & his intense style of play. It's easy to say he was a team leader & helped turn the Mets around from losers to a Championship caliber team in the mid eighties. Hernandez became a Mets legend & will forever be remembered for his leadership.

When he arrived with the Mets he could not use uniform #37 that had been retired by the organization in honor of Casey Stengel. He insisted the number have a "seven" in it in honor of Mickey Mantle, so he chose #17.

Keith Hernandez made his Mets debut on June 17th, 1983 batting cleanup & playing first base in 9-7 loss to the Expos at Montreal. The losing pitcher was Tom Seaver, who hade returned to New York but was in his final Mets season. That night Hernandez got two hits in four at bats.

On June 20th he hit his first Mets career HR, a two run shot off John Stuper & his former Cardinal team mates, leading the team in a 6-4 win. On July 14th, he hit his fourth Mets HR, a three run shot helping in a 7-4 win over the Cincinnati Reds. It was his eighth RBI in the first two weeks of July.

On July 22nd , the Mets entered the top of the 9th inning, down 2-1 to the Reds in a game at Riverfront Stadium Hernandez hit a solo HR to tie the game & Daryl Strawberry followed with another HR two batters later, which was the games winning run.

Three days later on July 25th, the Mets were down 4-1 to the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium. Hernandez helped in a four run rally with an RBI base hit scoring Junior Ortiz, he then crossed the plate with the winning run on George Foster's walk off base hit. He closed out the month with RBIs in three straight games & then drove in runs in three of four games to end August as well.

In September he began the month with a two run HR in a 4-3 win over the San Diego Padres. On September 9th, he broke a 3-3 tie in Montreal with an RBI base hit driving in Mookie Wilson. The Mets won the game giving Tom Seaver his next to last win as a New York Met, Hernandez would not play in the game of Seaver's final Mets win.

Hernandez finished out his first Mets season, playing in 95 games with them, leading the team in batting (.306) & on base % (.424%) with 9 HRs 8 doubles 64 walks & 37 RBIs. Although the Mets finished sixth (6894) & had gone through two managers; George Bamberger & Frank Howard, there were some positive signs.

Hernandez, as well as the Rookie of the Year; Daryl Strawberry (26 HRs 74 RBIs), Mookie Wilson & his 54 team record stolen bases were all bright signs. The next season a young pitching staff would take over from the veterans, including 19 year old phenom Dwight Gooden & the Mets would become contenders. Overall in 1983 Hernandez batted .297 with 12 HRs 23 doubles & 63 RBIs.

At first base he won his sixth straight Gold Glove Award & showed New York how to play first base. He led the league in put outs & double plays turned, coming in second in assists. The 1984 season began with some excitement as Hernandez, was now going to play in his first full season with New York.

On May 1st he hit his first HR of the year, coming in an 8-1 win over the Chicago Cubs. Keith drove in runs in the next five games, which included a 2-0 Ron Darling shut out over the Houston Astros at Shea on May 4th. A week later he drove in runs in four more straight games, which included a stretch of seven of none games with an RBI.

By June he was batting .300 & would remain at that level the rest of the season. On June 5th he drove in two runs, in Walt Terrell's complete game 3-0 shut out over the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the week of June 11th- June 15th, Keith had three multiple RBI games that included back to back shut outs over his old St. Louis Cardinals team.

He then followed up by driving in runs in four more straight games. On June 25th he hit a three run HR & had three hits in a 10-5 win over the Philadelphia Phillies at Shea Stadium.

By July the Mets found themselves in the middle of a pennant race, the crowds were once again filling up Shea Stadium & it was an exciting place to be. Hernandez drove in runs in ten of the first 15 games of the month as the Mets won 12 of 13 games including a stretch of eight straight.

On July 3rd, his two run HR in the bottom of the 6th inning off Houston's' Nolan Ryan put the Mets ahead & was the game winning runs. After back to back multi RBI games, he had a three hit three RBI day in Atlanta, in a 7-0 Mets win on June 14th.

Keith & Rodney Dangerfield
On July 24th, he had a big three hit day, at Shea Stadium that included four RBI's in a 9-8 win over his old Cardinal team mates. 

In the bottom of the 9th inning, his base hit off Neil Allen, the player whom he was traded for, brought in Mookie Wilson with the games walk off winning run. In early August, the Mets were swept by the first place Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago in a big series. Keith had a three RBI day in an 8-6 in the midst of the series.

On August 26th, he hit a two run HR & drove in two other runs, helping the Mets defeat the San Francisco Giants in a 11-6 win at Shea. In that game he had two hits & drew five walks. Three days later when the L.A. Dodgers came to town, he hit a walk off game winning double off former Met Pat Zachry to score Danny Heep, who had reached on a pinch hit base hit.

In September the Mets entered month, five games in back of the Cubs, from September 7th to the 14th, Keith drove in runs in five of seven games. Four of the games came against the Cards & Cubs, as the Mets took two of three from Chicago at Shea, including Doc Gooden's one hitter. Hernandez entered the month with a twelve game hit streak & then hit safely in six straight, 19 of 21 games overall.

The Mets fell short of catching the Cubs finishing up second, six games out winning 90 games. It was the most games the team had won since the Miracle year of 1969 & their best finish since the 1973 pennant season.

Hernandez had a spectacular year, coming in second in the MVP Voting, winning his first of five straight Gold Glove Awards with the Mets. He finished the year batting .311 (7th best in the NL) he had 97 walks (second in the NL) hit 15 HRs with 31 doubles (7th in the NL) & 94 RBIs (8th in the NL) while posting the league's best on base % at .409%.

That year he set a record with 24 game winning RBIs, which was an official record at that time. He also holds the all time record of 129 game winning RBIs in his career. At first base he was first in assists & double plays turned posting a .994% (3rd best in the NL).

Keith Hernandez drove in the first run of the 1985 season, with an opening Day RBI single off the Cards; Joaquin Andujar. Hernandez had three hits & drove in two runs but the Cards tied the game at 5-5. The newest Mets superstar; Gary Carter blasted a walk off HR, in his Mets debut for the 6-5 victory. Hernandez had three more hits the next day, and went on an RBI tear driving in runs in seven straight games.

On April 16th, his 9th inning sac fly scored Mookie Wilson with the game winning run off the Pirates; John Candelaria in a 2-1 win at Pittsburgh.

Then on April 19th, his 9th inning RBI single at Philadelphia, helped Doc Gooden to a 1-0 win over the Phillies. He closed out a strong April with a four RBI day in a 5-4 win over the Pirates at Shea Stadium.

He began May by hitting three HRs in the first nine games but a slump had him enter July batting just .251. He was down in the dumps & then reached out to his father who was such a strong influence in his life.

His father, a minor league first baseman (1941-1949) had played ball with Stan Musial in the Navy during World War II. Keith credits his father with getting him out of the slump. While watching him on TV, he noticed he was not seeing the uniform numbers on his back as he was in full stride with his swing. 

This meant he was bailing out on inside pitches, trying to pull the ball & was more vulnerable to the outside pitches. Things got better and he began hitting well again throughout the summer.

In the six hour; Fourth of July epic in Atlanta, he went 4-10 with a HR & three runs batted in, in the Mets 16-13 nineteen inning affair. The Mets went on a nine game win streak. winning 15 of 17 games, as Hernandez got hot to hit safely in 25 of 27 games. 

In that Atlanta series he had driven in five runs, & then as the Mets rolled into Cincinnati Keith hit two HRs & drove in six runs in the three game sweep. He closed out the month driving in ten runs in a five game span from July 24-the 29th. & was back over .290.

On August 3rd, the Mets were down to Lee Smith & the Cubs in the 9th inning at Chicago. Hernandez doubled in Wally Backman to tie the game, in which the Mets went on to win 5-4.

On August 8th; Keith drove in three runs in a 14-7 romp over the Expos at Montreal. He then drove in three runs as the Cubs came to Shea for a three game sweep & followed with another three RBI game in a 4-3 over the Phillies.

He began September by hitting HRs in back to back games at San Francisco & San Diego respectively. 

On September 12th, in a crucial series at Shea with the St. Louis Cardinals, Hernandez won the game with a walk off base hit off Ken Dayley scoring Mookie Wilson in the 7-6 win. The win kept the Mets in front of St. Louis by one game in the NL East Standings.

He closed out the year strong, hitting safely in all but one game from September 18th on, while driving in ten runs. On September 24th he had a three hit game at Philadelphia & then added a four hit day three games later in a 8-7 loss at Pittsburgh. On October 3rd, he had a big five hit day driving in two of the Mets three runs in a 4-3 loss at St. Louis to the Cardinals.

The Mets had taken the first two games of the series to get within two games of the Cards in first place, the loss put them at three back with two games to play, eliminating them. The Mets split the final two games against the Montreal Expos & finished in second place three game out. That year the Mets had three players finish in the top ten in NL MVP balloting that season (Gooden 4th, Carter 6th and Hernandez 8th).

Hernandez finished 1985 batting .309 (6th best in the NL) with 10 HRs 34 doubles (5th in the NL) 91 RBIs (10th in the NL) & a .384 on base % (7th in the NL). He came in 8th in the MVP voting, won his second straight Mets Gold Glove award, leading the NL in fielding at .997% as well as in assists. His ten sac flies were second in the NL, as his 185 singles were 4th most in the league & his 263 times on base were third most.

Drama of The Pittsburgh Drug Trials: In September of 1985, Hernandez was called before a grand jury in Pittsburgh to testify in the now famous "Pittsburgh Drug Trails". There he admitted using cocaine back in his St. Louis Cardinals days, in the late seventies into the early eighties.

He claimed that 40% of major leaguers were using & later backtracked, saying that that number could have been wrong. He was one of twenty three players called to testify, including Willie Mays, Lee Mazzilli, Vida Blue, Dave Parker, Tim Raines, Dale Berra & others. It was determined that the players were to be granted immunity for their testimony.

In the end seven men were convicted for distributing cocaine & MLB suffered an embarrassing blow. It was the biggest scandal & most penalties to be handed down since the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

Hernandez & some other Players (Berra, Parker, Joaquin Andujar, Enos Cabell, Lonnie Smith & Jeffrey Leonard) were suspended for a year by Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, but were allowed to play if 10% of their salary was donated to drug related community service.

It was during this trial that former Met John Milner admitted to purchasing amphetamines from Willie Mays while with the Mets & Willie Stargell while in Pittsburgh. Also Tim Raines said during a period he would only slide head first because he had a glass vial of cocaine in his uniform rear pocket.

Keith Greeting Former Manager Whitey Herzog
at St. Louis Cardinals Reunion

Mets Hall Of Fame Museum at Citi Field
It was learned that while in St. Louis, much of the tension between Hernandez & former manager; Whitey Herzog had a lot to do with his drug use. Eventually Hernandez had stopped using by 1982 & made a full recovery.

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