Esposito: Hernandez Book a Treat to Read or Recite

As happens now from time to time, the Mets’ SNY broadcast booth crew of Gary Cohen, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez, when faced with the somewhat boring aspects of a game that gets out of hand, such as when the home team was being outscored by three touchdowns at the hands of the Nationals earlier this week, the three-man booth starts searching for amusing sidebars to help pass the time. They’ve taken to randomly pulling vintage baseball cards from a box and recall whatever anecdotes related to that player or card come to mind. And as they again did this week, they’re not against thumbing through the Mets media guide and reading passages with a dryness that is absolutely hilarious.

So here’s another suggestion for the games when calling balls and strikes and chalking up more runs for the other team seems a bit mundane – they should start quoting or reading passages from Keith’s latest book, “I’m Keith Hernandez.”

The 342-page hardcover tome (Little, Brown and Company Publishers, $28.00) is a guaranteed must-read for any Mets fan (Cardinals fans, too, with all of the time Keith spent in a Redbirds uniform), and just about any baseball fan with a thirst for fun anecdotes, and the background of a former MVP and borderline Hall of Famer.

It’s filled with hundreds of humorous and revealing moments in Keith’s career and upbringing, and even stories behind the scenes in that charismatic SNY broadcast booth.

Written in a very conversational style – you could easily imagine Keith sitting next to you somewhere and relaying each remembrance with that same comfortably casual delivery he expresses during each game.

And it is Keith who is fully credited as the author. It’s not the first book Keith has “authored.” But previous publications have had co-authors. In 1986, Hernandez wrote, “If at First: A Season with the Mets,” along with sportswriter Mike Bryan. It was also somewhat autobiographical, but focused on his career as a Met to that point.

In 1994, Hernandez collaborated with Bryan once more on, “Pure Baseball,” more of an analytical study of the game and its finer points, just as he does from the booth on a daily basis.

And in 2009, Hernandez teamed up with Matt Silverman – who has authored a bookshelf full of books related to the Mets – to put together, “Shea Good-Bye,” a final tribute to the stadium that played its last game in 2008.

With “I’m Keith Hernandez,” the author begins with the simple declarative statement, “I love baseball.” From there, it’s a here and there ride through his life, not linear, as he jumps from chapter to chapter detailing his upbringing to his days with the Cardinals, to the Mets, to his life in Sag Harbor, to the SNY broadcast booth and other stops along the way in a back and forth fashion, but it all makes sense.
Some chapters last just one or two pages, as if Keith suddenly wants to reference a quick moment that came to mind.

The introduction explains why Keith did not approach this project as most baseball books deliver.

“I find most baseball books abou baseball players boring. There seems to be a standard template for how you write them. Maybe it’s because there are so many of them out there, but it feels like they’ve become a paint-by-numbers exercise….Forget that. I’m Keith Hernandez. I want to write this my way.”

And he quickly illustrates that point with a story about his family.

“When I was a kid, my father would come home from his twenty-four-hour firman shift and bring fresh San Francisco sourdough bread from the local bakery. If we were lucky, he would also have stopped by the Spanish market and picked up chorizio 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.’ I want you to feel the spontaneity I feel when I reflect.”

And he reflects a lot.

One story reflects on the origin of his nickname, Mex, as in Mexican. Keith is not Mexican. His father is of Spanish descent. A true Spaniard.

Seems it started in started in the minors, when other Latin ballplayers wouldn’t believe he was not Mexican.

“The conversation would go something like this: “Hey, Keith, what’s with the last name, Hernandez? Where are you from?” “California.” “Well, what are you?” “Half-Spanish and half Scots-Irish. Spanish on my dad’s si…” “You sure you’re not Mexican?” “Hey, if I was Mexican, I’d say I was Mexican and be proud…” “Com’on, man, you’re a Mexican.”

The frequent questioning in the minors caused him to relent.

“Finally I got tired of the conversation and just started saying,”Okay, I’m Mexican.” At some point people started to call me , “Mex,” which absolutely horrified my father, the proud Spaniard.”

Keith’s dad, John, Jr., was once a promising minor leaguer himself, and married Keith’s mom at home plate in Houston’s Buff Stadium in 1947. So it is with a wealth of experience and expertise that the father trained Keith and his brother, Gary, to be ballplayers from an early age.
He would bag a tennis ball in a sock and hang it from a beam in the garage so the brothers could practice their swings. Mom would sometimes film the batting practice sessions so dad could analyze the tape and offer corrective tips.

Not all of Keith’s stories are PG, but it’s not a kiss and tell book, either. An occasional curse word or two is uttered, for those who monitor their children’s reading materials, and there is at least one story where Keith and his minor league teammates venture to Mexico and are scammed as they attempt something a bit naughty. And another moment Keith describes as “not our finest hour,” involving prostitutes.

But he did have one very unusually funny teammate in the minors.

“Hector Cruz was the funniest person I’d ever met. I remember someone playing a radio on the bus, and when a good dance song came on, Hector took all his clothes off – he was stark naked – and started dancing down the aisle. ‘I’m a good-looking Puerto Rican boy,’ he boasted with a big smile on his face.”

Keith’s stories run the gamut from buying eggs in a grocery store, to being called up by the cardinals in 1974 and his first at-bats, to his phobia about being stung by a bee, to enjoying playing for Ken Boyer, one of his minor league managers, to meeting Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters at a party in Manhattan, to his cat, Hadji, to former Mets pitcher Dick Selma trying to induce him to drink Scotch whiskey, his lengthy commutes to and from his home in Sag Harbor, being thrown out of a game in El Paso and being fined $100, to meeting heroes such as Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio, his various batting slumps and successes, with hitting breakdowns, and yes, even game stories.

One story which all New Yorkers will certainly find humorous is when Hernandez first visited New York as a Cardinal in 1974. Future Hall of Famer Lou Brock and longtime Cards coach George Kissel helped “indoctrinate” him to the Big Apple.

Arriving at LaGuardia about 2:00 in the morning, Hernandez was admiring the New York skyline on his first bus ride into Manhattan when Brock told him, “Keith, there’s a million stories in that city. And guess what, you’re now one of them.”

When they got to the hotel, Kissel painted a bleaker picture.

“New York is a dangerous place, Keith. 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.”

Pointing up Sixth Avenue, Kissell warned, “That’s Central Park. Don’t go there.” Pointing West, he admonished, “That’s Hell’s Kitchen. Don’t go there.” Pointing downtown, he added, “That’s Times Square. Don’t go there.”

With Keith thinking, “Where the hell am I? A war zone?,”

Kissell did endorse one are. “That’s the Upper East Side. If you have to go somewhere, go there.”

Fortunately, hernandez those dangerous days, and did get to the enjoy the Upper East Side. While with the Mets, they regularly frequent Rusty Staub’s restaurants, and a sushi place on Second Ave. and 86th St. The troops would often include Hernandez, Staub, Ron Darling, and Ed Lynch.

“One night, we were a little rowdy – there was more sake and Sapporo going around than sushi – and the conversation got around to who would be the best lion tamer of the group. So someone – probably Lynchie – stood up, grabbed a chair and 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.’ But the owner came out, pleading with Rusty, ‘Oh, Mr. Rusty, not the chair! Not the chair!’”

The stories go on and on. And you just imagine what it would be like with Keith reading from his pages when the game goes awry. It’s almost worth looking forward to the next blowout.

Meanwhile, get “I’m Keith Hernandez.” Well worth it.

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