Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Books: "I'm Keith Hernandez"

I'm Keith Hernandez

By Keith Hernandez

Little, Brown & Company, 352 pages, $28.00; available today, May 15th

Keith Hernandez is known for being an accomplished baseball player with the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets.

Hernandez won the 1979 Most Valuable Player and the 1982 World Series with St. Louis and was a key part of the Mets' 1986 World Championship team, a consummate fan favorite here in New York.

After he retired, he became known in pop culture for his part on a landmark television show.

Hernandez did an episode of Seinfeld where he befriends Jerry and starts dating Elaine.

The title of his new memoir, I'm Keith Hernandez, comes from a scene in which he's kissing Elaine and she's thinking to herself, "Who does this guy think he is?" and in Keith's mind, he replies confidently, "I'm Keith Hernandez."

The beauty of this book is that it is not your traditional sports memoir, but more like a conversation with Keith told over 352 pages.

"I love baseball," writes Hernandez. "But I find most books about baseball players boring. There seems to be a standard template for how you write them. Maybe it's because there are so many of these books out there, but it feels like they've become a paint-by-numbers exercise. dictating what you talk about and how you talk about it.

"Forget that. I'm Keith Hernandez. I want to write this my way.

"When I was a kid, my father would come home from his twenty-four-hour fireman shift and bring fresh San Francisco sourdough bread from the local bakery. If we were lucky, he also would have stopped by the Spanish market and picked up chorizo sausage. The bread would still be warm from the baker's oven, and Mom would spread some butter or jelly over it and give it to my brother and me. Soft on the inside with a crust that made your teeth work just the right amount. It was wonderful. I want to make this book something like that. Something that you set your teeth into and say, 'Keith, that's pretty good. More, please.'

"So I'll need to keep things easy and moving along. I want you to feel the spontaneity I feel when I reflect."

A highly touted prospect in the Cardinals system, Hernandez was touted as "the next Musial" and he lived up to the hype by winning Gold Gloves for his play at first base, winning batting crowns, MVPs, and World championships throughout his illustrious career.

A line-drive hitting prospect out of Northern California, Hernandez was as natural in the batter's box as he was on the field. Scouts saw so much potential in him that he was given a sizable signing bonus out of high school, which was a rarity at the time.

It didn't take long for Keith to realize that "potential" could only get him so far and he had to learn a lot. He talks about his challenges, mistakes he made, juvenile hijinks, the many growing pains he went through, his shaky confidence, and his epic struggles with left-handed pitching.

There are stories about his first minor league outings to early struggles in the majors, which gave him the insight to become the 1979 batting champion and co-MVP.

On when he was first in the big leagues, which included a trip to New York, he writes, "So I was seeing and learning quite a bit in a short amount of time. But despite the stargazing, I still very much wanted to play and was happy knowing my plate appearances weren't meaningless. I'd been hitting .350 in AAA, and though I could really help the Cardinals. But it had been almost two weeks since my last start. How in hell was I going to get into a rhythm with just pinch hits? The triple off Seaver probably raised some eyebrows, and the walk from Ruthevan was my sixth in seventeen plate appearances. But the team was focused on beating the Pirates for the division, not on developing young talent, and they had a former MVP and batting champ in Joe Torre anchoring first base. I would just have to be patient.

"We flew to New York to face the Mets in the first series of a crucial road trip: two in New York, three in Philly, and three in Pittsburgh. We landed at LaGuardia Airport sometime after 2 a.m., and as we were bussing into the city, I got my very first look at the Manhattan skyline. It was a beautiful, clear night, and I couldn't get over all those buildings, my eyes, of course, scanning for the Empire State Building. Lou Brock, who must have sensed my wonder at the whole thing, reached over to me and said, 'Keith, there's a million stories in that city. And guess what? Now you're one of them.'

"But Lou's inspiring words were quickly tempered when we arrived at the New York Sheraton and George Kissell, Red's (Schoendienst) bench coach, had me follow him outside the hotel lobby to the street.

"'New York City is a dangerous place, Keith,' he began. It was past three in the morning, and I couldn't get over the number of taxis still out and about. 'It's on the verge of bankruptcy, and there is a major criminal element walking these streets. You can wind up in a bad area and find yourself in trouble.'

"'Okay,' I said.

"George then pointed up Sixth Avenue. 'That's Central Park,' he said. 'Don't go there.'

"I nodded.

"Then he pointed west. 'That's Hell's Kitchen,' he continued. 'Don't go there.'

"Another nod.

"Then he pointed down the avenue. 'That's Times Square. 'Don't go there.'

"And I was thinking, Where the hell am I? A war zone?

"Finally, George pointed east. 'That's the Upper East Side. If you have to go somewhere in this city, go there.'"

The irony in reading that story is that when Hernandez came to the Mets in 1983, he settled in Manhattan before moving to Long Island, where he currently lives,.

"So how did a kid from San Francisco who played ball for the Cardinals wind up living most of each year in New York?, writes Hernandez. "Well, the impetus was being traded by the Cardinals to the New York Mets in 1983. The next season, I moved into an apartment on the East Side, Midtown, and tried on 'city life.' As a ballplayer carousing around with his new teammates, it wasn't hard to get used to.

"In those early days, our favorite place was Rusty's, owned by my teammate Rusty Staub. But if someone, usually pitcher Ed Lynch, said, 'Hey, let's grab some sushi,' then we'd head to Tokubei 86, a Japanese restaurant on 86th and Second Avenue (it's not there anymore). It's Ed, Rusty, and myself, and sometimes Ron Darling, who lived downtown. (We'd drop Danny Heep and his wife, Jane, off at the Mad Hatter, their favorite post-game establishment on the Upper East Side.) We'd all go eat and drink. All the restaurants loved having us because the Mets, previous doormat of the NL East, were turning things around.

"I remember one night we were a little rowdy - there was more sake and Sapporo going around than sushi - and the conversation somehow got on who would be the best lion tamer of the group. Seems normal, right? So someone (probably Lynchie) stood up, grabbed a chair in one hand, pointed the four legs at the rest of us, and with an imaginary whip in the other hand, imitated a lion tamer in his best ringmaster voice: 'Stand back, everyone. I'll keep you safe from these terrible beasts!' Everybody in the restaurant seemed to enjoy our antics. But the owner came out, pleading with Rusty, the only mature one of us, 'Oh, Mr. Rusty, not the chair! Not the chair!'

"We were ballplayers - of course we could be obnoxious. Nights after a day game were especially fun: table for ten, dinner at a normal hour, and with Rusty in attendance, fine wine flowing. I remember one night we got loud, and Lynchie left the table to use the restroom. When he returned, he walked by an older couple, and the wife was angrily telling her husband, 'I don't care if that is Keith Hernandez. I don't have to listen to that kind of language!'

"Oops! (Never got to apologize for that one.)

"New York just afforded more opportunities for shenanigans since nothing seemed too far or to ever close down for the night. And as ballplayers on a night schedule, Manhattan was the perfect fix; it was sort of like we were in college, only we used hot new clubs and fine restaurants as our fraternity houses."

Hernandez describes how his development as a young player still impacts the way he sees the game today as a beloved announcer for the Mets. He writes on the way the game is changing, with the increasing reliance on home runs and the league coming up with new attempts to shorten the game such as replay and limiting visits to the mound.

Keith writes of his commute home following an afternoon game, and that turns into his take on how the game is played in this era, as he writes, "The game will finish sometime around 4:30, and it'll be about a ten-minute walk from the booth, through the bowels of Citi Field, past the visitors' clubhouse to the parking lot, saying my goodbyes and see-you-tomorrows to the ushers and vendors along the way. By the time I'm on the highway, it'll be after 5, and I'll be smack-dab in the middle of evening rush hour, everyone going east after a long workday in the city. I'll be anxious to get home, but just like when I stepped up to the plate in the big leagues, I'll have to take a deep breath, count to ten, and tell myself, No, Keith, the HOV lane is not for you. Just go with the flow and don't weave in and out of traffic just to gain on maybe a car or two. Finally, after about two and a half hours in the car, I'll be home.

"It will go faster if today's game is like last night's broadcast: a nice and tidy two-hour-and-twenty-minute affair. That was awesome. I got home before midnight and had a good sleep despite the quick turnaround for today's day game. I wish all the games could move so quickly, but with so many pitching changes these days and manaher challenges, even a low-scoring, well-played nine innings usually takes three hours and change. Ughhhh...

"Three hours for an average game is not good for baseball. The only thing it serves is more concession sales and television advertising revenues. The game was meant to be played at a faster pace, and if it is allowed to slow down further, I fear baseball will become a bore: a tedious exercise of managers and general managers trying to micromanage every second of the game. Why do they do it? Because the game, like everything else, has gotten so hyper-analyzed that those in charge - from general managers to managers to the umpires to the commissioner's office - mitigate risk at the expense of the game's pace: e.g., a constant flux in pitchers and 'instant' replay.

"People - sports television critics mainly - get on me sometimes when I complain during a broadcast about long games; they think my complaining reflects a less-than-enthusiastic tone about baseball. Well, I still love baseball, but if we keep up with these long games, they might be proven correct. Because while baseball was never meant to be played at a frenetic pace, there is, again, a rhythm to it, and with all the stopping and starting - from the batters stepping out of the box for days on end, to pitchers, particularly relievers, who take an eternity between pitches; to 3-2 counts ad nauseum; to an abundance of base on balls; to instant replay every five seconds; to countless pitching changes; to commercial breaks - that rhythm is under siege."

Hernandez is one of the best baseball analysts for a reason, and that is because he always has a well-informed, insightful take on whatever is going on during the game he is calling or on a larger point.

I'm Keith Hernandez is a compelling, entertaining work by a unique figure with a vast wealth of experience and knowledge on the American pastime.

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