The Big Interview: Mets Legend Keith Hernandez On Baseball, Books, Broadcasting And Battles
- Now a beloved broadcaster for the team he helped lead to the 1986 World Series title, Hernandez has long been a man of many passions, which he discusses at length here with SI.
An Oakland A’s media guide pokes out beneath some papers on the kitchen table. Otherwise, a tour of Keith Hernandez’s tasteful four-bedroom home in Southampton, N.Y., offers no indication that the owner made—and makes—his living in sports. The walls are covered, floor to ceiling, with artwork and classic movie posters. Miles Davis plays from the speakers. A library’s worth of books—leather-bound copies of the classics, dense history texts, a self-help guide by the late Debbie Ford—are strewn throughout. The home’s greatest extravagance might be a feline bachelor pad for Hernandez’s cat, Hadji.
Even at the height of his baseball career more than three decades ago, Hernandez was a man of diverse interests. He was one of the few major leaguers to make a clubhouse ritual of killing a New York Times crossword before games—in pen, no less. Upon his retirement in 1990, Hernandez enrolled in Greek and Roman history courses at Columbia. He writes and paints and is constantly nourishing his curiosities.
Today, Hernandez, 63, is back to spending most of his summers at the ballpark. Along with Gary Cohen and his former teammate Ron Darling, Hernandez forms one-third of the Mets' television broadcast team, the best booth in baseball and a source of balm for the Mets’ chapped fans in this unhappy season. But even as an analyst, he hardly plays the role of the affable ex-jock. Hernandez, the crusty autodidact, is as likely to discuss the woes of his rose garden—voles have been blazing a path of destruction—than the woes of the Mets’ starters.
“Do you know who I am?” may be the celebrity’s lament; Hernandez takes no chances. Hours before he’s due at work on an aggressively hot July day, when Hernandez opens the door to greet a visitor, he is already wearing his Mets employee ID on a lanyard around his neck. The symbolism is unmistakable: Hernandez wears his dorky employee badge because he no longer self-identifies as a star. He’s no longer sitting across from Keith Richards or schmoozing with Jack Nicholson or, for that matter, being asked to play himself on Seinfeld. He lives on a quiet cul-de-sac a few blocks from the ocean. By his own happy admission, his is a world removed from his bright-lights-big-city 1980s existence. “I’m just another guy,” he says, “who likes his job and doesn’t like his commute.”
It’s 86 miles from Southampton to Citi Field. Hernandez makes the drive to the 55 Met home games he calls each season. He tries to appreciate the beauty of the scenery. He tries to stay off his phone and within the speed limit—though one suspects that most cops in Suffolk County would glimpse that moustache and downgrade a ticket to a warning. Mostly, Hernandez is happy for the time alone with his thoughts.
On this day, though, he spends the drive in conversation, his breadth of interests on vivid display. Below are outtakes from a sprawling road trip conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
SI: Bill Nack—a great SI writer—did a piece on you when you were playing, in October 1986. It starts with you saying, “I most fear boredom and loneliness, life after baseball. Life after baseball equals boredom and loneliness.”
KH: We all go through different phases. Look at me now. I never dreamed I’d be in the booth. If [when I retired as a player in 1990] someone would have asked me, ‘When you’re 63 you want to be doing 110 games broadcasting?’ I would have said, ‘Absolutely not. That’s not what I want to do.’ ”
SI: What did you want to do?
KH: Find a job somewhere or rob banks.
SI: Does your life equal boredom and loneliness? I’m guessing no—
KH: Not now. But I needed to get away from baseball for a few years. Six or seven years, didn’t watch a game. I think that helped.
SI: What are you reading these days?
KH: Lot of things. I have three books about the 50th anniversary of [the Beatles album] Sergeant Pepper. One’s about the album design. One’s about the music. One’s about famous people and artists from all walks of life talking about how the album influenced their lives. The one I’m liking most is about the album cover, which was just extraordinary. . . . [Traffic begins to congest] See, this is why I leave early. I leave just a little later and it turns into a very stressful drive.
SI: So when do you get home?
KH: Little before midnight.
SI: Like being a player.
KH: It’s a young man’s game.
SI: Game goes 15 innings, I hope you have a place to crash in the city.
KH: I have a hotel near Times Square. They give me a great rate. . . . See, this is Shinnecock [golf course] and [Long Island] National back-to-back. Two of the great courses in the country.
SI: You play?
KH: My back can’t take it. And I don’t really have the patience for it. But it’s beautiful driving by them.
SI: Are you reading any history?
KH: I go in spurts. I read more in the off-season than during the season. Right now, I have a two-volume Civil War history book that just came out. I’m reading about the Texas Brigade, John Bell Hood’s original brigade before he went on to divisional command. I’ve read the overviews but I like reading about the specific units. They have more intimacy, more quotes from soldiers.
SI: What do you think it is with the Civil War? Sports figures love the history.
KH: Politically, it starts from the get-go of the Union. It culminates with the Civil War but the politics between the North and the South are amazing. Split the Whig Party. But it started early and steamrolled for decades. Kansas-Nebraska Act, Missouri Compromise. Things don’t happen overnight in politics.
SI: Or economics either, right? The cotton gin. The railroad. Shipping.
KH: Right, shipping all that cotton to Europe. King cotton. [Knowing what was to come] the South wouldn’t have signed the Constitution. And there’s no Union. It’s an interesting period, say 1800 to the Civil War. The issue was slavery. It wasn’t going to get fixed—eradicated—without a war.
SI: I think of you as such a California guy, but so much of this predates California.
KH: Well, 1849 was the Gold Rush. I have a flag at home with 46 stars. I gotta remember to hang that up.
SI: As a Bay Area native, did you get into local writing?
KH: Like what?
SI: I don’t know, maybe Dashiell Hammett—
KH: I did read Dashiell Hammett, but from that I really got into John le Carré. Spy novels. Len Deighton, the Cold War. Espionage. Love those.
SI: I didn’t realize that le Carré is still with us and still writing.
KH: Yes! He’s writing another book! He’s bringing back George Smiley! And Peter Guillam, his younger acolyte. I guess Smiley will be retired and Guillam will be the main protagonist. I can’t wait for this to come out.
SI: Off-season reading.
KH: I have a bad back, and in Florida [where Hernandez spends the off-season] I have a Jacuzzi tub and I’ll go in there—sometimes a couple hours—and just read. I’m just finishing a Churchill book, Last Lion by William Manchester. There are three volumes. The last is the war years and the post war years. . . . With history books—it’s not like a novel where you lose the story—you can pick up where you leave off.
SI: What’s the appeal of history?
KH: I don’t know. You learn lessons from history. History repeats itself. Don’t you think that, for some reason, men in general have more of an interest in history?
SI: Why do you think that is?
KH: Don’t want to make it a gender thing. But men like history and I’m one of those guys.
SI: Think it’s that—because of the social structures in place— the majority of these pivotal figures from events of years ago were male?
KH: Where we are today, time marches on.
SI: With the history, do you travel much?
KH: I’ve done the battlefields. I’ve been to Gettysburg probably more than half a dozen times. Usually when I drive to Florida I go to Shenandoah, the Virginia Battlefields, Antietam. But I travel so much during the season, I get to Florida and I just chill.
SI: This curiosity, where did it start?
KH: I remember as a kid, I couldn’t wait to get my library card, get my first book. There was a sphinx on the cover and I figured I was going to read about the Egyptians. But it was this archeology. It was so dry. But I forced myself to read it because it was my first book out of the library. Should have gotten a Hardy Boys.
SI: Confirm or deny: Your best asset as broadcaster is your storytelling?
KH: I have a good knack for writing. I had teachers that taught me how to write. But the most practical class that I ever took in high school was an elective: I took a year of typing. So I’m on the computer, and I can type properly. It just flows from my brain.
I had a very good English lit teacher. Got me very much interested in literature my sophomore year in high school. That’s why I have all my classics. Also, it improved my vocabulary. I think I have a pretty good vocabulary. When I read, if I didn’t understand a word, I would always have a dictionary with me, look it up. Then when computers kind of came in, you could have a little pocket dictionary, battery-powered.
SI: How much preparation goes into the broadcast?
KH: It’s spontaneous. Ronny [Ron Darling] comes prepared, but we’re analysts. Gary [Cohen] is the one who has to be the maestro. He has to be up on everything, every aspect, whether it’s a player or something new in the game. . . . The Colorado series, every game was a blowout. Like 8–0 in the second inning. Those are the tough ones. You’re losing and you really have to hold the audience, so that’s when you start telling stories.
SI: Does that play to your strength?
KH: It is a strength. I have lots of stories. Gary watched the TV programs I watched—The Jetsons, Tom and Jerry—and we have fun with that. The three of us have fun with music. This is what you do when you have two hours of broadcast time and it’s 10–0. Some people just want pure baseball but you can’t please everybody.
SI: What was your relationship with Ron Darling when you played?
KH: There were only about five of us that lived in the city. He and I were two. You have to live on the East Side because Shea is in Flushing. If you want to live on the West Side and do crosstown traffic, be my guest. But I was on 49th and Second. Ronny stayed downtown. He was more of a loner, more bohemian. As a teammate, I was very involved with the pitcher during a game but with Ronny, he didn’t like to be bothered. So I left him alone to his own devices. I respected that. As we’ve come into the booth together, I think our friendship has grown exponentially. We’ve gotten to know each other without the pressure of performing.
SI: Really, you’re not—
KH: Baseball is an entirely different level of performance in my mind.
SI: What did playing in New York mean to your career?
KH: New York broadened my horizons. Probably one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, even though it didn’t seem that way at the time.
SI: What did you think of the city before you lived here?
KH: We stayed at the old New York Sheraton, right off the park. It was always a rest town for me. I just went to the hotel bar. I went out in New York City twice when I was a Cardinal. I mean, the hotel bar was fine. They had a lot of airlines, European airlines that were staying there, so there was no need to go wandering around.
SI: And then when you were traded in 1983—
KH: I was married when I got traded. Had two kids. In the off-season, we split up for good. Then Rusty Staub said to me in spring training, ‘If you’re single, you got to stay in the city.’ I got a feel for the city. Well, with Rusty, we had a great time. I got acclimated to the city. . . . I bought in ’85 at Sterling Plaza on 49th and 2nd, a real nice two-bedroom. I wish I’d kept it. It would be worth a fortune. I sold it in ’03. I made good money, but it would have been ridiculous today.
SI: Beyond the real estate, you took advantage of being there.
KH: I had the great fortune to meet Bobby Zarem, a publicist headquartered in New York. Not under my employ, we were just good friends. He opened up a whole world of Manhattan to me as far as the arts, theater, symphony, movies, because he did a lot of stuff with movies.
SI: You were a regular at Elaine’s—
KH: Elaine’s is where everybody hung out. That’s where Bobby hung out. He opened up the whole part of New York that very few people get to observe so intimately.
SI: I read once about you and Keith Richards—
KH: He was there one night with his wife, at the dinner table. It’s just one example. He was absolutely fantastic. Totally what I did not expect. Totally normal, unaffected. His wife was adorable.
SI: Who else?
KH: Gosh, I mean, Placido Domingo. Michael Caine. . . . I saw Phantom of the Opera three times with my two girls. This was when you couldn’t get in; I was third row center, going backstage.I had dinner with Elia Kazan. Huge baseball fan. I couldn’t get him to talk about his movies. He wanted to talk baseball. Finally he brought up East of Eden with James Dean and Raymond Massey, that was the father. He was a by-the-book actor, everything had to be structured. James Dean was from that school, you know, the actor’s school. They were supposed to be at odds. Massey would come in after a shoot. ‘This guy is crazy, he’s going off the script.’ Elia would say, ‘I’ll go to him, get him back on track.’ Then he’d go to James Dean and tell him to keep doing the same thing. He wanted Massey to be angry, have this angst.
SI: Did you try to impress this on players today? “You’re lucky enough to play in New York. Take advantage of it.”
KH: I don’t have a whole lot of contact at the ballpark. They have the extra room back there [in the clubhouse] that we never had where media is not allowed.
SI: You didn’t have ambitions of managing?
KH: No, no. Today managers got to be there at 12 noon. It’s a full job, 12 to midnight, for crying out loud. I have no desire, no desire to wear a uniform.
I don’t think I’m that great a communicator, to be honest with you. I think I would have a hard time. Things are a little different today. I would have less patience with shoddy play. I don’t have the desire to put the time in. Don’t want to sort of go back in the minor leagues and manage.
That’s hurting the game a little, too, because when I got into the minor leagues, I always had ex-major leaguers as coaches, ‘cause they didn’t make the money. I was right before the big burst in salaries, but I certainly made good money. I don’t think [many stars today] are ever going to manage. . . . Some people need to stay in the game. Some don’t.
SI: Where are you now with your relationship with baseball?
KH: I don’t like a lot of things that are changed in the game. I don’t like the length of the game. I don’t like the challenges. I don’t like the direction the game is going with the home runs. It’s just too many teams. The four-team expansion, there’s just not enough talent to go around. Just the reliance on bullpens now, protecting the starting pitchers. I mean, if you look at the standings in both leagues, there’s hardly anybody over .500. They’re under .500 for a good reason. Like I always say, three-games series, a second division team will show you in a three-game series why they’re a second division team. There’s a lot of them.
SI: You sound like an old-timer—
KH: I just think the quality of play is slipping. Don’t want to sound like an old-timer, but baseball has finally succumbed to football. You talk to all the NFL linemen, 270 pounds was a big lineman. It’s all about technique and footwork. Today they’re 350 pounds, and they say there’s no footwork any more, they just smother you, try to pancake you. Basketball with the three-point play, the dunk. Golf, how far they can drive the ball with the equipment. Tennis, it’s all about serve now. Everybody wants the big power instead of the little details, the minutia.
So baseball’s finally caved into it. I mean, the people that run the game know what they’re doing. They’re doing their cost/benefit analysis. The ball is going out of ballparks at a record pace, more so than in the steroid era this year. It’s doing it for a reason. They want more home runs.
They made all these new ballparks, and they made them tiny. The players now, I go on the field, I’m six feet tall, these players, I’m dwarfed. They’re all 6' 6", 6' 5", 6' 4". I mean, they’re just, what, two generations, look how much taller they are. They’re bigger and stronger. They made the parks smaller. I would love to play these parks today, these tiny parks.
SI: What do we do about this, especially the pacing?
KH: Well, Gary [Cohen] said he never thought he would be for it, but he’s for it: a time clock, put a time clock on it.
SI: On the pitcher?
KH: On the hitter also. The hitter has got to be in the box, too. Okay, I think the real problem is you don’t have starters going seven innings now. Most teams will have a decent eighth inning relief and a stopper. It’s the front end of the bullpens that are just dreck. A lot of 3-2 counts. Relievers taking an inordinate amount of time for some reason. A lot of them are slow workers. The clock could correct that. I’m on the fence on that one.
But [Cardinals starter Michael] Wacha threw a complete game last night. Everybody was acting like Moses had parted the Red Sea. Most every game, if it’s a well-pitched game, you’re in the fifth inning, God, it’s an hour and 15 minutes, you might have a two and a half hour game. In the sixth, here come the bullpens. Sure enough you got a three-hour plus game. Drives me nuts.
KH: The challenges don’t help. I do not like the challenges at all. Pitchers today, there’s too many 3-2 counts. Pitchers get 0-2 and don’t know how to put a hitter away. There’s always been guys that have been wild, throw a lot of pitches. But there’s more today. I do think that managers overmanage today. Heaven forbid you leave in a righthander to face a lefthander, you know, because you might get second guessed by the media or your general manager. When I played, the managers were left alone. The GMs now are hands on. A lot of them are saber guys, they’re all analytics. . . . I don’t think we’ll ever see small ball any more, stolen bases.
SI: Think a lot of this goes through cycles?
KH: They put me on the field last night, down where the photographers were. I was watching. I don’t see any great speed. I mean, when I played, the Cardinal teams, we had Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Omar Moreno. You had all kinds of speed and threats for stolen bases. That is gone. The speed in the game has gone.
SI: You don’t think guys today are as fast?
KH: I’m not saying that. There’s not enough speed burners. We had more speed burners. I mean, really fast guys. And it’s more station-to-station now. One base at a time. It’s boring to me.
I mean, you’ve got the new rules with the catcher. If it had been a backup catcher [who got hurt in a 2011 collision at home plate], there never would have been a rule change. But it was their precious million dollar poster boy, [Buster] Posey. It’s not his fault. But they changed the rules. It’s ridiculous. The rules are clearly stated in the rulebook. I mean, to me the rulebook is like the Constitution: It is not a living, breathing document. That rulebook is very clear on the strike zone. There’s no reason to alter it.
SI: I thought we weren’t touching politics.
KH: I think they got it right. The baseball rulebook is right. I think the Constitution got it right. Getting into politics, that’s why it’s so hard to get an amendment. There won’t be any tyranny.
SI: I know you’re writing your memoir. Enjoy it?
KH: I’m enjoying it very much. Missed memories, wrong recollections. Things pop up, percolate up, that you had forgotten. Then you have this amazing computer age that you can draw on all this data. . . . dig up all the St. Louis Cardinal articles [in the] Post Dispatch. We’ve done a lot of research. It’s been very interesting going back.
SI: What are you learning about Keith Hernandez?
KH: Right now we’re about in the mid ’70s, late ’70s. My career is just starting to take off after a lot of early struggles. But when I started in the minor leagues, when I took off in Triple A, it’s very interesting to see some of my quotes, how confident I was. Then how easily when I got to the big leagues, and I struggled, how easily that confidence was shaken, put to the test basically. Had to have the strength to come back. That’s what I found interesting so far, how cocksure I was when I was killing Triple A.
My first three years in the big leagues were a struggle. Finally the second half of my third year, I took off. Boy, those were years I don’t ever want to relive.
SI: The first few years [of struggle] make for disguised blessing? Or is that an oversimplification?
KH: No, I would rather have had success. I went through a lot of hard times. I went through a lot of struggle. A few times I was in tears. It brought me to my knees just about.
SI: You know the gold standard for the sports memoir?
KH: Andre Agassi?
SI: Andre Agassi. You’re prepared to go there, visit some dark places?
KH: You have to be. I had great moments. I had not-great moments. I was part of the Pittsburgh drug trials. You do a book like this and you have to be willing to put it all out there.
SI: What’s next?
KH: I’ll figure out something.
SI: You enjoy the TV?
KH: I do. In a few years from now I might not want to do 110 games a year. But I enjoy it. But want to know something?
SI: What’s that?
KH: When I quit doing this, I won’t watch a baseball game ever again. Like Mitzi Gaynor, I’ll wash that game right out of my hair.