What I’m Reading: “I’m Keith Hernandez” by Keith Hernandez

At the beginning of “I’m Keith Hernandez,” the titular author announces that this will be no ordinary biography in which the athlete chronologically takes the reader through the highs and lows of his career.

For the most part, this isn’t entirely true. Hernandez indeed walks us through the early days of his career, culminating in his winning the 1979 National League batting crown and MVP Award, and the reassuring feeling he experienced in 1980 when his success continued and he could finally convince himself that his MVP season wasn’t a fluke. Hernandez breaks up the story with stream-of-conscious stories that simultaneously lend the story a certain charm and yet can also go too far.

Interspersed with his stories of his early days with the Cardinals, Hernandez tells stories from his boyhood, most of which feature his relationship with his father, a San Francisco fireman who was determined to see Keith reach the majors after his own career ended in the minor leagues. Hernandez also tells stories about his current role as a broadcaster for the New York Mets, bringing fans into the booth to see the conversations the broadcast team has off the air and the preparations they make in advance of each game.

At other times, he tells stories of the famous people he has met in New York or simply describes what’s happening around him as he writes this book. This includes the strangest passage I’ve ever read in a baseball autobiography:

It’s the building manager. She’s come to see if I’m satisfied with some recent repair work. I point out a couple of things that need to be corrected and tell her that I’ll be gone at the end of the week for the Mets’ upcoming baseball season and they can finish the work after that. “And will he be staying?” she asks, pointing to the cat. I guess she’s concerned he may go hungry over the next six months. “Oh no. He comes with me. We’re flying up to New York together. I have a carrier for him.” She pets Hadji and talks sweet nothings to him. I guess she’s a cat lover. I glance over at the waiting computer, now in sleep mode, and she asks if there’s anything else she can do. Then I remember that there actually is something. “I talked to my AC guy,” I say, “and the filters are twenty- one by twenty- one by one, and I couldn’t find them at Home Depot. They had different sizes.” “You have to order them online,” she says. “Ah.” She says goodbye, and I get in touch with the AC guy, who says he’ll get me the filters. Then I leave a message with Cookie Knuth, my friend and neighbor who keeps an eye on the apartment when I’m gone, to be on the lookout for the AC guy and the repairmen. Finally, I turn my phone off mute in case Cookie calls me back. I’m tired now, so I sit on the couch and watch the news. After Cookie calls, I go into the bedroom to take a nap. 

There is no follow-up to this story to provide any sort of punchline, nor does it correlate to anything else written in the book. It’s just the most random of several spots where Hernandez decides to tell us about what’s happening around him as the book is being written.

Admittedly, these brief interludes where Hernandez goes off-topic lend the book a certain charm, and make you feel less like you’re reading a biography and more like you’re chatting with Hernandez as he talks about his glory days. Most of the stories are interesting and fit into his larger story about his development into a true major leaguer, but some of them are just random thoughts that he’s happy to share.

Hernandez is very honest about the insecurities of his early career, which seem to go hand-in-hand with his thoughtful approach to the game. As Keith recounts throughout much of the book, he truly isn’t certain whether he has the talent to play the game at the highest levels, and it isn’t until the 1980 season that he finally feels as though he’s made it.

Admittedly, this is a much more interesting book for Cardinals fans than it is for Mets fans. For all intents and purposes, Hernandez’s book ends with the first month of the 1980 season and only offers hints to the drug abuse that will ultimately lead Whitey Herzog and the Cardinals to trade him to the Mets. As a result, Hernandez never gets to any stories about his days with the mid- to late-‘80s Mets.

One of the most interesting stories Hernandez has to tell is about the way Lou Brock took him under his wing. From helping Hernandez learn not to sulk when he spent an early stretch on the bench to teaching him to crowd the plate against lefties, Brock actually played a key role in Hernandez’s career, so much so that in one photo cutline, Hernandez refers to Brock as his second father. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bob Gibson provided Hernandez plenty of tough love as he adjusted to major-league life.

For Cardinals fans who fondly remember Hernandez’s days in St. Louis, “I’m Keith Hernandez” will be a fun read. Hernandez really focuses in on what it took for him to become a successful big leaguer, and isn’t afraid to detail the mistakes and tribulations that came along the way. While the book meanders at times, it’s really at its best when Hernandez unveils how hard the path to major-league success was, even to an all-star such as himself, and highlights the people along the way who helped him succeed.

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