Keith Hernandez Part 2: Champions in ’82, Traded in ’83

This is Part 2 of a three-part series chronicling Keith Hernandez’s career, which includes Part 1: Road to the MVP and Part 3: Post-Cardinals Career and Legacy.

After Keith Hernandez‘s MVP season, the Cardinals rewarded him with a five-year, $3.8 million contract. The contract made Hernandez’s salary more than 10 times larger than the $75,000 per season he had been earning, and meant the Cardinals wouldn’t have to worry about him hitting the free agent market after the 1981 season.

“There was always that possibility,” Hernandez said, “but the bottom line was that I wanted to stay in St. Louis.”[1]

Ironically, though Hernandez would later garner additional fame for his appearances on Seinfeld and Just For Men commercials and spend years as the color commentator for New York Mets games, the reigning MVP couldn’t see himself participating in any marketing campaigns.

“If you get on TV you lose your privacy,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be Pete Rose or Steve Garvey, who are recognized everywhere they go.”[2]

Hernandez did, however, hit the banquet circuit, where he was lavished with praise and adulation. The press wanted interviews. Fellow star athletes congratulated him. There also were plenty of women. Most of the banquets were held at ritzy hotels, so Hernandez and the other athletes would fly in and stay at the hotel overnight, allowing the celebration to continue throughout the evening and into the early morning.

“There’d be drinks and girls,” Hernandez wrote in 2018. “Maybe even some cocaine. I say ‘maybe’ only because I’m not positive that I did do it on any of those trips, but 1980 was the first time I tried the drug.”[3]

In an August 1981 article in Inside Sports magazine, Hernandez described one encounter in which he brought a woman back to his hotel room following a reception in Kansas City.[4]

In July 1980, Hernandez was named to his second all-star game. When he returned to St. Louis, he and his wife Sue separated. Later that month, KMOX reported that a Cardinals player who recently signed a large contract had asked the team for $1,100 to take his wife to the all-star game and then took his girlfriend instead.

“I never asked the club for money,” Hernandez said when asked about the report.[5]

As his personal life was falling apart, Hernandez’s relationship with Whitey Herzog also deteriorated. On July 29, Hernandez failed to break up a double play in a 4-1 loss to the Giants. Herzog was convinced that Hernandez simply hadn’t tried. The next day, he called out Hernandez in the middle of a clubhouse meeting.

With the season winding down in September, St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports editor Bob Broeg wrote a column titled, “Will Birds Unload Hernandez For Sassy Attitude?” in which he acknowledged the rumors that the Cardinals were willing to trade Hernandez.[6] In October, Post-Dispatch baseball writer Rick Hummel noted in a column that “it would be ludicrous to trade Hernandez just because he didn’t run out some ground balls, and to brand him the scapegoat for the Cardinals’ dreary season would be terribly shortsighted.”

Hernandez acknowledged that he didn’t always hustle on the base paths. He also noted that he wasn’t the only member of the 1980 Cardinals with that flaw in their game.

“There are four who run that way,” Hernandez said. “I think on this team, I rank third or fourth in that category.”[7]

He also made it clear that if he was traded, it would come back to haunt the Cardinals.

“I don’t give a damn if they trade me,” he said. “I’ll be like Bake McBride, Steve Carlton, and Jerry Reuss. Those guys were all sad when they left, but they’re in the money now. The Cardinals may trade me to the American League. They can trade me to the National League West. But before I’m through, I’ll make it a point to come back and haunt them.”[8]

Through it all, Hernandez remained one of the league’s top players. He finished the 1980 season with a .321 batting average (placing him second behind Bill Buckner), 16 homers, and 99 RBIs. His .408 on-base percentage and 111 runs scored both led the league, and he finished the year with a Gold Glove Award, a Silver Slugger, and an 11th-place finish in the MVP voting.

After the final game of the season, Hernandez bid farewell to his teammates, including 24-year-old catcher Terry Kennedy, whose father, Bob Kennedy, had left his role as the Cardinals’ director of player development to become the general manager for the Cubs.

“Hey, tell your father not to trade for me,” Hernandez said. Terry Kennedy laughed. “I’m being serious,” Hernandez added.[9]

Hernandez spent the offseason mending relationships. He reconciled with his wife, though they would divorce in 1987. While Herzog made a flurry of deals to remake the Cardinals roster, Hernandez remained in a Cardinals uniform as the 1981 season began. Herzog downplayed the trade rumors.

“To bat .321 and drive in 99 runs under the circumstances he had is a hell of a year,” Herzog said. “He’s one of the five best players in the game. No telling how good he could do if he didn’t have any worries.”[10]

So why did Herzog choose to call out Hernandez among a roster of players who weren’t running the base paths the way he expected?

“That was nothing personal,” Herzog said. “I was just trying to tell the club that I wanted everyone to bust his ass. Keith happened to be singled out. He can play team baseball. I’m very happy with the way he’s played this year.”[11]

For the next two seasons, Hernandez played key roles for winning Cardinals teams. In 1981, the players’ strike forced the season to be split into two halves and Major League Baseball announced that the division winners in each half of the season would play each other in a best-of-five Division Series. Though the Cardinals went a combined 59-43 in 1981 for the best record in the National League East, they finished second to the Phillies in the first half and the Expos in the second half. As a result, they watched the Expos beat the Phillies, then fall to the eventual world champion Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.

In 1982, Hernandez hit .299 with 94 RBIs and won his fifth consecutive Gold Glove. This time, the Cardinals didn’t have to worry about a split season, and their 92-70 record topped the Phillies by three games. They went on to sweep the Braves in the NLCS, then beat the Brewers in seven games. Hernandez went 7-for-27 (.259) with a home run and eight RBIs in the World Series.

Heading into the 1983 trade deadline, Hernandez remained a solid player for a struggling Cardinals team. In 55 games, he had a .284 batting average with three homers and 26 RBIs.

Cardinals fans and all of baseball were shocked when, just before the deadline, the Cardinals and Mets announced that Hernandez had been traded to New York for Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey. When the announcement was placed on the scoreboard at Busch Stadium 15 minutes before the Cardinals’ game against the Phillies started, St. Louis fans booed.[12]

“It’s not often you get the chance to acquire someone with the talent of Keith Hernandez,” Mets general manager Frank Cashen said.[13]

In fact, Cashen was so surprised when Cardinals general manager Joe McDonald called to propose the trade that former Mets vice president Jim Nagourney remembered it decades later.

“I was standing by Frank and he had this huge smile on his face,” Nagourney said. “I said, ‘What’s up, Frank?’ He told me. I said, ‘For gosh sakes, take that smile off your face and make the phone call.’ He was so hysterically happy that he was having a hard time dialing to say yes.”[14]

The Mets players responded in much the same manner. Pitcher Ed Lynch recalled the trade rumors swirling in the Mets clubhouse when Allen was called into the manager’s office.

“Everybody’s saying, ‘They traded Neil, they traded Neil,’ and I’m saying, ‘Oh, geez, for whom?’” Lynch said. “Then somebody comes in and says for Keith Hernandez, and I’m over there helping Neil pack, saying, ‘Hey, Neil, I hate to see you go, but …’”[15]

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that several Phillies and scouts speculated that the Cardinals’ acquisition of Allen meant that Bruce Sutter’s recent bout with tendinitis was worse than anyone had known.

“On the surface, this deal makes no sense for St. Louis but maybe there’s something we don’t know about,” one Phillies scout said.[16]

Hernandez played in 95 games for the Mets that season, batting .306 with nine homers and 37 RBIs. The following February, New York signed Hernandez to a five-year, $8.4 million extension.

“I admit I was upset when I first came here,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to stay a Met, but at the end of last season I noticed a change in attitude. The guys were really pulling together and the good clubs had to play hard to beat us.”

He added, “The Mets made a good deal and the Cardinals made a very bad one.”[17]

In 1984, the public got its first hint that there may have been more to the trade than the personal animosity between Herzog and Hernandez. While speaking at a sports journalism seminar in Washington, recent Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Ken Moffett suggested that Hernandez may have been traded because he refused to admit that he was battling a drug problem.

“Keith (the Cardinals’ player representative) told me Whitey Herzog told the players that he had evidence that three players were involved in cocaine use,” Moffett said at the seminar. “Keith said Herzog asked the players to step forward. He said after another meeting no one did. Shortly after that, Lonnie Smith asked to be admitted to a rehabilitation center. Then Hernandez was traded to the Mets and Doug Bair was waived, cut, traded, whatever, and went to Detroit. Draw your own conclusions, but I find the Cardinals’ trades very intriguing, particularly Hernandez’s trade.”[18]

Hernandez wasted no time responding.

“I’m going to sue him,” he said. “His innuendoes are ridiculous. It’s not true. The matter is being referred to my lawyer to see if anything is libelous about it.”[19]

While Hernandez ultimately chose not to sue, Moffett apologized and retracted his suggestion that Hernandez did cocaine.[20] After Hernandez later admitted his drug use, he was reminded of the way he responded to Moffett.

“What else could I do?” Hernandez said. “At that stage, there was no way it was going to come out.”[21]

This is Part 2 of a three-part series chronicling Keith Hernandez’s career, which includes Part 1: Road to the MVP and Part 3: Post-Cardinals Career and Legacy.


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[1] Rick Hummel, “Rich Bird Hernandez,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 23, 1980.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Keith A Faceless Card … But He Likes It That Way,” The Sporting News, March 8, 1980.

[3] Keith Hernandez (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Kindle Android version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Location 4159.

[4] Cal Fussman, “All You Need Is Love,” Inside Sports, August 1981.

[5] Cal Fussman, “All You Need Is Love,” Inside Sports, August 1981.

[6] Bob Broeg, “Will Birds Unload Hernandez For Sassy Attitude?” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 16, 1980, Page C1.

[7] Rick Hummel, “A Hernandez Trade Isn’t Impossible,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 5, 1980: Page F1.

[8] Cal Fussman, “All You Need Is Love,” Inside Sports, August 1981.

[9] Cal Fussman, “All You Need Is Love,” Inside Sports, August 1981.

[10] Cal Fussman, “All You Need Is Love,” Inside Sports, August 1981.

[11] Cal Fussman, “All You Need Is Love,” Inside Sports, August 1981.

[12] “Cards trade Hernandez to the Mets,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 16, 1983.

[13] “Keith Hernandez sent to Mets for Allen, Ownbey,” New York Times, June 16, 1983.

[14] Steven Marcus, “Cards Kept Keith’s Drug Use A Secret From Mets: The rest is history,” Newsday, June 14, 2008, https://www.newsday.com/sports/cards-kept-keith-s-drug-use-a-secret-from-mets-the-rest-is-history-1.633664.

[15] George Vecsey, “Keith Hernandez: Best Met Ever,” New York Times, June 4, 1984.

[16] “Cards trade Hernandez to the Mets,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 16, 1983.

[17] “Hernandez an $8.4 Million Man,” Cincinnati Enquirer, February 11, 1984.

[18] Rick Hummel, “Hernandez Denies Drug Suggestion,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 23, 1984.

[19] Rick Hummel, “Hernandez Denies Drug Suggestion,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 23, 1984.

[20] Rick Hummel, “Hernandez Denies Drug Suggestion,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 23, 1984.

[21] George Vecsey, “Torn Between Shadow and Sunshine,” New York Times, March 9, 1986.

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