Keith Hernandez Part 3: Post-Cardinals Career and Legacy

This is Part 3 of a three-part series chronicling Keith Hernandez’s career, which includes Part 1: Road to the MVP and Part 2: Champions in ’82, Traded in ’83.

As Keith Hernandez helped to turn around a Mets franchise that had been mired in the bottom of the National League East standings, Whitey Herzog and Hernandez continued to trade barbs.

“In St. Louis, Whitey had to get all the credit,” Hernandez said in June 1984. “We didn’t win the World Series in St. Louis because 25 guys played great, we won because we played Whitey Ball, and when we started to lose the next year, Whitey started pointing fingers.”[1]

Even when the Cardinals were winning, Hernandez said, his relationship with Herzog made it hard for him to enjoy the game.

“It’s like I have new blood now,” he said. “In 1982 and ’83, there were days when I couldn’t stand going to the ballpark, and that’s when we were winning. I was stagnating. I had to battle the feeling.”[2]

Herzog, meanwhile, had to defend the trade in St. Louis, especially as Hernandez and the Mets emerged as contenders for the NL East crown.

“He was not hustling,” Herzog said. “He traded himself. I knew it, the team knew it, and he knew it. In practice, he would sit in the clubhouse working crossword puzzles.”[3]

Herzog indicated that his final straw had come a few days before the trade, when Hernandez grounded into a game-ending double play and trotted to first base.[4]

“Getting rid of Hernandez was addition by subtraction,” Herzog wrote in White Rat: A Life in Baseball in 1987. “I really felt that if we had kept him, his attitude and bullshit would have ruined our ball club. I know he never would have been as good for us as he has been with the Mets.”[5]

“His motives are pretty obvious,” Hernandez said in response. “He made a trade that worked out pretty poorly and he hasn’t got the guts to bite the bullet and admit that he made a mistake. This isn’t the first time he’s said things about me, but these are far more serious. As far as him saying that I worked crossword puzzles while the team was on the field, that’s a blatant lie. I work crossword puzzles after batting practice. It relaxes me and helps me prepare for the game.”[6]

The Mets had no issues with Hernandez’s penchant for crossword puzzles. In 1984, Hernandez placed second in the MVP vote, batting .311 with 15 homers and 94 RBIs to lead the Mets to a second-place finish behind the Cubs. Along the way, Hernandez was named an all-star for the third time in his career, won his seventh Gold Glove, and also earned his second Silver Slugger.

He followed that performance with a nearly identical 1985 season, batting .309 with 10 homers and 91 RBIs. This time, the Mets finished second to the Cardinals in the NL East. In the midst of the pennant race, Hernandez found himself once again addressing his cocaine use while with the Cardinals, this time as part of the Pittsburgh cocaine trafficking case of Curtis Strong. Hernandez was one of 10 major league players to admit to drug use before a federal grand jury in exchange for immunity.

Lonnie Smith, who was now playing with the Royals, told the grand jury that he had purchased cocaine from Strong for Hernandez and Joaquin Andujar.

“It was a difficult time in my life,” Hernandez told Newsday in 2008. “I was in and out of my first marriage. I was fooling around with drugs, the coke, we all know that. … There were some nights when I was up all night. I didn’t sleep. It was very destructive.”[7]

In court, Hernandez described waking up one morning in November 1980 with a bloody nose.

“I had the shakes,” he said. “I wound up throwing a gram down the toilet. I stayed away from it the rest of the winter.”[8]

He admitted that he returned to the drug prior to his trade to the Mets, though he insisted that his habit was never serious enough to require treatment.[9]

Hernandez said the Cardinals never directly asked him if he had a drug problem, though he believed they suspected. At the time of the trade, the Mets had known about the distance between Herzog and Hernandez, but Mets general manager Frank Cashen said he hadn’t heard rumors regarding drug use.[10]

While Hernandez gained immunity from federal prosecution in exchange for his testimony, he did not have immunity from commissioner Peter Ueberroth’s punishment. Ueberroth gave Hernandez and 20 other players involved in the drug scandal a choice: sit out the 1986 season or give 10% of that year’s salary to a drug rehabilitation center, do 200 hours of drug-related community service, and submit to random drug testing for the remainder of his career.

Hernandez opted to play the 1986 season, but made it clear that he wasn’t pleased with the commissioner’s decision.

“I feel strongly that I have an obligation to my team, the fans, and to baseball to play this year,” he said, reading from a prepared statement. “With this in mind, I will comply with the commissioner’s decision. I hope this finally puts this issue to rest.”[11]

Following his admission of drug use, the Cardinals fans who had cheered him upon his returns to Busch Stadium greeted him with boos. At one game, Hernandez’s teammates had to keep him from charging into the stands to confront a fan who spat and threw beer at him. Hernandez’s daughters were at the game, seated behind the dugout.[12]

While Cardinals fans weren’t glad to see him, the Mets certainly were excited to have Hernandez on the field. The first baseman led New York to 108 regular-season wins and a World Series championship over the Boston Red Sox. Along the way, he hit .310 with 13 homers and 89 RBIs, earning all-star and Gold Glove nods as he finished fourth in the MVP voting.

“The key to Hernandez’s success is that he thinks along with the pitcher,” Tom Seaver told the New York Post. “I play more mind games with him than almost any hitter I’ve ever faced.”[13]

It didn’t take long for the New York press to pronounce Hernandez the team leader, and in in 1987, Mets manager Davey Johnson officially named him team captain.

“He has great rapport,” outfielder Lee Mazzilli said of Hernandez. “The key is he leads by example, not by a lot of talking. It’s not often you see someone so willing to lend a helping hand.”[14]

Ed Lynch said that Hernandez’s penchant for providing good advice to Mets pitchers was appreciated in the clubhouse.

“He’ll come over with two strikes on George Hendrick and say, ‘Good breaking-ball hitter,’ or for another guy he’ll say, ‘Fastball inside,’” Lynch recalled.[15]

Hernandez offered similar assistance to pitchers throughout his Cardinals career. In 2013, Bob Forsch wrote that he hated when infielders came to the mound because it usually it meant they were buying time for a reliever to warm up in the bullpen. Hernandez, however, was the exception to the rule.

“He knew how hitters should be pitched,” Forsch wrote. “Once in a while, he’d come out and say, ‘I’ve been watching this guy, and this is how you can get him out.’ He was really good about it. When Keith Hernandez talked out there, I listened.”[16]

In an interview with GQ magazine prior to the 1986 season, Hernandez said the Cardinals didn’t appreciate his leadership qualities the same way New York did.

“I wasn’t doing anything different from what I did in St. Louis – but Whitey was the only leader there,” he said. “He got rid of players who had influence with the team, the guys who marched to their own drummer. He was God … and I suppose I didn’t get credit because they have a more provincial press there, a company press that doesn’t write what it isn’t told.”[17]

Hernandez was named an all-star for the fifth and final time of his career in 1987. He hit .290 with a career-high 18 homers and won yet another Gold Glove. Despite injuries that limited him to 95 games in 1988, Hernandez won his 11th consecutive Gold Glove. It proved the final such award in his career.

In 1989, Hernandez played in just 75 games, batting .233 with four homers and 19 RBIs. In 1990, he signed with the Indians, but was again beset by injuries. He played in just 43 games and announced his retirement after the season.

Over his 17-year career, Hernandez played in more than 2,000 games, including 1,165 with the Cardinals. He finished with 2,182 hits, 162 home runs, and 1,071 RBIs. Known throughout his career for his superior batting eye, Hernandez posted a .296 career batting average and – with the assistance of 1,070 career walks compared to 1,012 strikeouts – a .384 on-base percentage. In his 10 years in St. Louis, Hernandez hit .299 with 1,217 hits, 81 homers, and 595 RBIs.

Defensively, Hernandez’s 11 Gold Glove awards from 1978 through 1988 is more than any other first baseman in baseball history. He finished with a .994 career fielding percentage.

In 1996, Hernandez appeared on his first Hall of Fame ballot. He received 24 votes, good for 5.1%. He stayed on the ballot through 2004 but never exceeded the 10.8% of the vote he received in 1998.

“Because there’s such an emphasis on offense, people may not think of Keith immediately as a Hall of Fame player, but when you think of it, what is offense?” asked Tim McCarver, who covered Hernandez’s career as a Mets broadcaster during the late ‘80s. “It’s what the defense is designed to stop. If you stop offense, isn’t that important? Offense and defense are parts of what you do to win, and Keith helped his teams win as much as anyone.”[18]

Outfielder Mookie Wilson said that throughout Hernandez’s Mets career, his teammates recognized that he was the best player they would ever play with.

“He controlled the game,” Wilson said. “How many players can you say that about? But he did. He was a great first baseman and when the game was on the line, he was the one all of us wanted up there – and the other team never wanted to see. If he isn’t a Hall of Fame player, who is?”[19]

In 1997, the Mets inducted Hernandez into their Hall of Fame.

Herzog and Hernandez eventually repaired their relationship. When Hernandez was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2008, he called Herzog the best manager he ever played for.

“I got a beautiful letter from him,” Herzog said. “He is a heck of a man.”[20]

In 2020, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Benjamin Hochman asked Herzog if he believed Hernandez deserved to be inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame.

“Yes, I do think so,” Herzog said. “I think Keith Hernandez very much deserves to be in the Cardinals Hall of Fame.

“He was the best defensive left-handed first baseman. He was outstanding defensively. And of all the years I managed, he was one of the best hit-and-run players. He loved to hit-and-run.”[21]

Hernandez is among five finalists for the Cardinals’ 2021 Hall of Fame class alongside Steve Carlton, Matt Morris, Edgar Renteria, and Lee Smith.

This is Part 3 of a three-part series chronicling Keith Hernandez’s career, which includes Part 1: Road to the MVP and Part 2: Champions in ’82, Traded in ’83.


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[1] Mike McAlary, “One year later: Keith makes Whitey see red,” New York Post, June 15, 1984.

[2] Mike McAlary, “One year later: Keith makes Whitey see red,” New York Post, June 15, 1984.

[3] Bob Broeg, “Hernandez ‘Traded Himself’: Herzog,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 26, 1984: Page D1.

[4] Bob Broeg, “Hernandez ‘Traded Himself’: Herzog,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 26, 1984: Page D1.

[5] Whitey Herzog and Kevin Horrigan (1987), White Rat: A Life in Baseball, New York, N.Y.: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., Page 151.

[6] Mark Everson, “Keith, Whitey trade cross words,” New York Post, June 27, 1984.

[7] 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.

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

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

[10] 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.

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

[12] Jack O’Connell, “Cards fans have it in for Keith,” New York Daily News, April 18, 1987.

[13] Bob Klapisch, “Killer Keith Has Eye Of The Tiger,” New York Post, September 19, 1986.

[14] Steve Marcus, “Leader Of The Pack,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 17, 1987.

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

[16] Bob Forsch with Tom Wheatley (2013), Tales from the St. Louis Cardinals Dugout, New York; Sports Publishing, Pages 164-166.

[17] Joe Klein, “Two Cheers for Keith Hernandez,” GQ, April 1986.

[18] “In Defense Of Keith Hernandez,” Palm Beach Post, January 2, 1996.

[19] “In Defense Of Keith Hernandez,” Palm Beach Post, January 2, 1996.

[20] 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.

[21] Benjamin Hochman, “Whitey Herzog agrees – Keith Hernandez ‘deserves’ to be in Cardinals’ Hall of Fame,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 25, 2020, https://www.stltoday.com/sports/columns/benjamin-hochman/hochman-whitey-herzog-agrees-keith-hernandez-deserves-to-be-in-cardinals-hall-of-fame/article_a04da4d4-3ac3-5920-a3a8-1354a575519b.html.

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