How Keith Hernandez's brother helped forge his path to greatness

July 6th, 2022

NEW YORK -- On the night of Oct. 15, 1986, Gary Hernandez was watching Game 6 of the National League Championship Series with a small group of friends at home in California when the phone rang. 

Two thousand miles to the southeast, in Houston, Keith Hernandez had raced out of the visiting dugout after the seventh inning, bounded up the Astrodome steps, procured a phone and begged the operator to connect him with haste. When Gary picked up, Keith asked him how he was swinging. His brother told him his at-bats looked fine. He noted that Astros starter Bob Knepper appeared to be tiring, and that when Knepper was fatigued, he had a tendency to elevate his pitches.

“Wait for a pitch up and rip one in the alley,” Gary instructed, as his astonished friends looked on. 

“All I needed was just a positive from him,” Keith recalled of the conversation. “Then I ran down those f------ stairs, and I got back in plenty of time to get back on the field.”

An inning later, Hernandez hit an RBI double to chase Knepper from the game, contributing one of the crucial hits of a tying three-run rally that allowed the Mets to clinch the pennant in a 16-inning thriller. That he credits his brother with at least a portion of that success is no throwaway kindness; perhaps no one had more of an impact on Hernandez’s mental state throughout his career than Gary -- his older brother, mentor, travel companion and closest confidant.

So, when Mets officials asked Hernandez whom he would like to catch his ceremonial first pitch on Saturday during his number retirement festivities at Citi Field, Keith did not hesitate in naming Gary.

“I kind of consider myself his reality check,” Gary Hernandez said. “To me, he’s my younger brother. He’s not Keith Hernandez the superstar.”

For the Hernandez brothers, the connection was forged at a young age, over backyard games of basketball and stacks of American Heritage books. Gary influenced Keith’s passions in sports and history. When Keith exceeded his own professional career and became an MVP-caliber Major Leaguer, Gary became his sounding board, his rock, his source of advice.

“I was never jealous of Keith one day,” Gary said. “I actually think if I could go back and trade and be Keith, I’d rather just be me and let Keith handle all the pressure. I got joy out of watching my brother play.”

Because Gary played baseball at the collegiate level and Keith did not, the two began their professional careers around the same time, despite a three-year age difference. Early that first summer in 1972, Keith was slumping for the Class A St. Petersburg Cardinals while Gary was still breaking in at extended Spring Training. So, after his own game in Sarasota, Fla., Gary drove 45 minutes up to St. Pete to offer his brother moral support -- a gesture that resonates with Keith to this day. It was late when Gary arrived back home for a short night of sleep.

Throughout the balance of Keith’s playing career, that’s how the relationship operated. Rarely did Keith seek technical advice from his brother, who became a firefighter and later an insurance salesman following his four-year stint in the Minors. Instead, Keith relied on Gary for mental support, often needing little more than a subtle nod or an encouraging word to bolster what he described as a “fragile” sense of confidence. When Keith brooded after being traded from the Cardinals to the Mets in 1983, it was Gary who urged his brother to consider the positive aspects of New York. Years later, when Keith came to bat in the sixth inning of World Series Game 7, it was Gary whose eyes he sought in the stands, looking for nothing more than a fist pump to clear his mind.

“I just think I had a very small part to play,” Gary said. “I think Keith would have been a great player if I were there or not.”

Keith returned the favors as best he could: with generosity off the field and lifelong friendship. A frequent travel companion, particularly when the Cardinals or Mets were on the West Coast, Gary would often dine with his brother before games or visit Civil War memorials -- a mutual passion -- when they had the time. Gary was in the clubhouse for both of Keith’s World Series championship celebrations, creating memories that he continues to treasure. Over the years, Keith took him to Super Bowls, heavyweight boxing championships and US Open tennis matches.

That’s why Gary was the obvious choice to catch Keith’s first pitch, on a day that will be all about No. 17.

“It means a whole lot to have my kids there, obviously -- my kids, my grandkids, it’s very important,” Keith said. “But Gary’s a special one. It’s going to be the accent mark. The exclamation point is going to be him catching my throw. And then I want them all to be beside me when they pull off the canvas.”

When asked, Keith Hernandez often refers to his number retirement as the greatest honor a team can bestow upon a player. To stand alongside him ranks among the most touching honors that Gary has received -- the pinnacle of a seven-decade bond between brothers.

“For the rest of our lives, we have that rock,” Gary said. “We each have each other no matter what happens.”