We will all hear again on Saturday afternoon about how intense Keith Hernandez was as a ballplayer, when he was still wearing the No. 17 that will be officially retired at Citi Field, across the parking lot from where Hernandez showed up nearly 40 years ago from the Cardinals and began to change everything for the Mets of the 1980s.
He was a fierce competitor. He set high standards for himself, at the plate or on the field, and if his teammates didn’t meet them, they would hear about it, or they better get out of his way. But there was something else about Hernandez, known as Mex, that made him who he was as a player, and as the clear leader of the team in 1986 that eventually became the best the Mets ever had, and as good as any New York team you ever saw.
You could even see it all the way from the Bronx, where there was another great first baseman in those years.
“He loved to play,” Don Mattingly told me on Friday when I asked him what it was that he thought made Hernandez so great.
Hernandez's love of the game, it’s strategies and intricacies and all of its endless fascinations and possibilities, defined him as much as anything else. That even includes him being -- for my money, anyway -- the best defensive first baseman in baseball history, the one who took defense and so often turned it into offense in a way nobody before him had. It’s why he could start a 3-5-4 double play one night in Cincinnati as he was crossing the third-base line, having come all the way over there on a bunt.
“He had so much baseball in him,” Dwight Gooden said. “And every time you thought you knew exactly how much, he’d make another play and show you there was more.”
In New York City sports, the gold standard for the kind of trade that didn’t just change a team but history had always been Dave DeBusschere, whom the old Knicks got from the Pistons (DeBusschere also pitched big league baseball for the White Sox for a time) and became the missing puzzle piece that turned those Knicks into two-time NBA champs, and into perhaps the most beloved New York team of them all. After that, you’d always hear that this team or that was looking for their own DeBusschere. Frank Cashen, the legendary Mets general manager, found his in Keith Hernandez.
But over time, after Hernandez’s playing career ended and he finally ended up in the SNY television booth with Gary Cohen and his old teammate Ron Darling, Keith’s career arc came to resemble the one that belongs to another iconic New York athlete. That means Walt (Clyde) Frazier, the greatest player on the Knicks’ championship teams, one who has now become a different kind of star -- on television -- for generations of Knick fans who never saw him play. It is exactly what has happened to Hernandez, who has found a different kind of platform for Mets fans to hear all that baseball that Gooden talked about come spilling out of him, game after game, season after season.
There is even more fun to Hernandez in the booth, whimsy and downright goofiness sometimes, than fans ever saw when it was as if he was trying to glare his way to another win for the Mets, making plays at first, hitting line drives from the No. 3 hole in Davey Johnson’s batting order.
“The Keith I sit next to,” Darling has said on multiple occasions, “is not always the Keith I played with.”
But what still comes through, loud and clear, is how much Hernandez knows about baseball, how he thinks it should be played, and that means played right. When Max Scherzer -- the kind of intense competitor that Hernandez would have loved playing with -- was sidelined for weeks with an oblique injury, he said that one of the few positives of being away from the game and the team was that it gave him more time to listen to Hernandez work Mets games on TV.
Of course Hernandez will be honored as a player on Saturday at Citi Field, not as an analyst. He came from St. Louis and taught Gooden and Darling and so many other young Mets of the 1980s how to win. He ran the game from first and it was no accident that when you walked into the Mets clubhouse at old Shea Stadium, the first locker on the left belonged to Hernandez, and the one closest to Johnson’s office.
“We all wanted to win,” Gooden said. “But nobody wanted to win more than Keith did.”
Hernandez played 95 games for the Mets in 1983 after coming over from the Cardinals. Amazingly, he only played four full seasons at old Shea after that before finishing his career in Cleveland. But he made his time matter. In the process, he helped the Mets matter again, the way they had in New York when they were the Miracle Mets of 1969. Keith Hernandez mattered as much as any Met ever had, all the way back to the great Tom Seaver, the Franchise.
Hernandez will be honored for that on Saturday afternoon, and he’ll hear the cheers he heard when he was young, and make so many of the people cheering him feel young at the same time, like it is ’86 all over again.