‘Best thing that ever happened to me’ – The Mercury News

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The man who could anticipate everything on the baseball diamond swears he didn’t see this coming. In fact, he thought it might never happen at all.

Keith Hernandez was caught completely by surprise when the Mets announced that they would be retiring his number. The ceremony, set for July 9 at Citi Field, is a long overdue recognition for one of the team’s best players. For as long as there are the New York Mets, there will be a No. 17 plaque on display, making Hernandez immortal in a place he never wanted to be in the first place.

“There was no excitement for coming to New York, because they were a last place team,” Hernandez says. Speaking over the phone from his backyard in California, Hernandez recalls the day in 1983 when he was traded from the Cardinals to the Mets.

“It was a very sad day for me,” he admits. “I was a Cardinals fan as a kid. I came up in the ‘70s when New York was going bankrupt. It was kind of a dangerous town. I didn’t go out when we’d visit, I’d stay close to the hotel or didn’t leave. I had no idea what would happen, and it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”

A brief synopsis of his accomplishments with the Mets includes three trips to the All-Star Game, five consecutive Gold Gloves, and of course, the World Series title in 1986. Bringing a championship to Queens will always be the biggest highlight of his Mets’ tenure, but Hernandez says that the relationships he fostered bring him more pride than any World Series jewelry.

“In 1984, my first full year with the Mets, I was 30 years old and there were a bunch of young kids,” Hernandez says. “I could have turned inward and just come to the park every day and put my numbers up, or with all the young players that were so eager, I could impart my experiences on them. That’s what I’m most proud of. It puts a big smile on my face when I get a call from Kevin Mitchell or Wally Backman. They say nice things about me and how I helped them. That means a lot to me.”

Don’t just take it from Hernandez, take it from Mitchell (who cannot for the life of him understand why his former captain isn’t the Hall of Fame) and Backman (who misses the postgame beers they’d share in the clubhouse).

“It’s taken a long time for Keith to get anything, bro,” Mitchell says. “He deserves all of it. The man is unbelievable. He’s a leader, never a follower. He led us that whole year in ‘86.”

“He was always a step ahead,” Backman marvels. “It’s what you want all your guys to do but it just doesn’t happen. Most guys just go out and play the game. He was actually managing the game in his head, which is not an easy task.”

Then there were the extracurriculars. The ‘86 Mets were a famously hard-partying group, one that would beat the brakes off everyone despite varying degrees of sobriety or hangovers. Bobby Ojeda, who joined the Mets for that ‘86 run and played five seasons with Hernandez, remembers getting introduced to the first baseman’s suave lifestyle.

“It was early in the season, and Keith was like, ‘Come on. Let’s go out in the city,’” Ojeda says. “I show up at his apartment in standard jock uniform: jeans, sneakers, T-shirt and probably a leather jacket. He’s like, ‘No. This isn’t going to work.’ He pulls out some leather pants and these cool shoes, really cool stuff.”

Hernandez understood the power of drip long before social media and the internet’s obsession with everything athletes do, say and wear.

“He completely dressed me, and I needed it,” Ojeda laughs. “That outfit was working. I walked out that door feeling pretty strong about my look. We went to some model party, and all of a sudden, I noticed that the clothes do make a difference. A few hours later I’m like, ‘OK, this did work.’ He was a full service teammate.”

Today, nearly 33 years removed from his last game as a Met, the 68-year-old Hernandez is still very much a part of the organization. His job as a color commentator for SNY has given Hernandez a second life in baseball. He began calling Mets’ games in 1998, meaning an entire generation of fans know him only for his wisecracks in the booth and not for his refined approach at the plate or silky glovework at first base.

“A lot of people have told me that they were absolutely surprised that I have a sense of humor and I’m a little goofy,” Hernandez says. “They figured I’d be this stern and serious guy.”

Trying to imagine Hernandez as a stern and serious guy is laughable for the millions of people who were introduced to him through the broadcast booth. Those who shared the field with him can see how he made the transition so seamless, though.

“When he started to do it, I went, ‘He’s going to be good at this,’” Backman says. “The knowledge he has of the game, he knows every aspect.”

“I’d say, ‘You’re a mind reader, Keith,’” Mitchell tells the Daily News. “It’s unbelievable stuff. Straight instincts.”

Still, as the rest of the Mets’ dugout revered him, there were times when No. 17 doubted himself. This led to one of many quirks in the unique story of Keith Hernandez. When he felt he needed some swing advice, Hernandez would call his family during games. He’d normally chat with his older brother, Gary, or his father, John, who passed away in 1992.

“He did it all the time! He’s the only guy I know in baseball that ever did that,” Backman says.

“I have never seen that in my whole career except for Keith. He amazes me,” Mitchell adds.

Gary, who is two and a half years older than Keith, had one phone call locked and loaded when asked about the most memorable one.

“When he called me from Houston [during the 1986 NLCS] in the clubhouse during the important game when he was facing Bob Knepper [in Game 6],” Gary says. “I had played against Knepper in the minor leagues. Keith would call me because, like anyone else, he wanted to have everything he possibly could in his arsenal. He wanted the confidence that I would give him.”

The brothers were very close and remain so to this day. While he was playing at Cal-Berkeley, Gary set a number of school records during his sophomore year. He told his coach that while he was enjoying an All-American season, their real priority should be trying to sign Keith, who Gary joked would move him to the bench.

During those conversations on the Mets’ clubhouse phone, Gary usually shook his head and told Keith to do the things that had allowed him to have such a fruitful big-league career.

“I was a worry wart with my swing,” Keith says. “I knew that Gary was watching. He’s always been my biggest supporter and my good luck charm. It basically shows a lot of insecurity, if you ask me.”

“I’d tell him, ‘Keith, you’re going to rip this guy. You’re swinging great.’ It’s amazing how even great players need that,” Gary chuckles. “There’s still fear of failure.”

Failure was rarely part of Keith’s game. He played parts of seven seasons for the Mets and slashed .297/.387/.429, numbers that made him a more-than-deserving number retiree and help give him a strong Hall of Fame case for the Modern Baseball Committee to consider.

As for how he ended up with 17 on his back — he wore 37 for most of his Cardinal days but said he was “never really happy with that number” — Hernandez said it was a tribute to his childhood idol, Mickey Mantle.

“When I got to the big leagues, I never felt like I could wear 7, but I wanted a 7 on my back,” Hernandez said, referencing Mantle’s famous number but also the feeling that he’d never live up to Mantle’s impossible standard if he wore his number.

“When I got traded to the Mets, Charlie Samuels was our clubhouse manager,” Hernandez says. “He said, ‘I can’t give you 37. That’s Casey Stengel’s. It’s retired.’ He said we have 17 and I said that’s perfect.”

A few players wore the number after Hernandez retired, but that’s a thing of the past now. When he was told that he’d be receiving this honor, Hernandez says he never dreamed this would happen in a million years, adding that it puts a player in a “different stratosphere”. The list of Mets’ players with retired numbers is now four names long: Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Mike Piazza and Hernandez.

“There’ve been a lot of incredible athletes who have played for the Mets,” Ojeda says. “The Mets have an incredible fanbase and they hold their former players who have done memorable things for them in high regard. I think this is great for Mets fans. It’s cool, it’s very fitting.”

Keith’s rock, talisman, and often long-distance phone partner gets emotional thinking about what it will be like to look up on July 9 and see his brother’s number alongside those legends.

“I’m dumbfounded, and I’m so proud that his number is going to be there for eternity,” Gary says. “I almost get teary eyed when I think about it. To see my brother’s number going up on the wall, it’s the greatest honor a team can give a player.”


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