The thing to remember is that he didn’t want to be here.
When Keith Hernandez was traded to the Mets on June 15, 1983 – the anti-matter version of the Tom Seaver trade, if you will – he was riding high. As a longtime member of the St. Louis Cardinals, he’d won a batting title, shared a National League MVP Award with the great Willie Stargell and had been a major cog in the machine that had won a terrific 1982 World Series. The Mets, on the other hand, were mired in their first Dark Times. They hadn’t had a winning season in any of the previous six, losing 90-plus games every year but one – 1981, shortened by a horrific players strike. They had made a splash the year before, acquiring slugger George Foster from the Cincinnati Reds, but that move fell flat when Foster had a terrible year away from the Midwest. They’d reacquired Seaver in the off-season, which vivified the fan base, but the results on the field didn’t match the excitement in the stands – Seaver ended up with only his second losing season ever in 1983. So, Hernandez wasn’t exactly walking into the ideal situation, and he knew it, right away. Walking into the clubhouse on June 16, Seaver greeted him with a hearty “Welcome to the Stems!” A bewildered Hernandez asked him what he meant and Seaver replied “Backward ‘Mets!’”
I think he ended up glad to be wrong.
Starting in 1984 and over the following four seasons, the Mets never won fewer than 90 games. Much of that success can be credited to Hernandez’s play and leadership. Shaking off his initial reluctance to be a Met, he signed a contract extension in the off-season, upon learning about the talent simmering in the team’s minor league system. Among Mets fans, the Hernandez era is legendary. As the modern lament goes, “Oh, if there’d only been a Wild Card back then…” The team took its cue from Hernandez and new manager Davey Johnson in 1984 and rocketed to a 90-win season, falling just shy of a division title to the equally surprising Chicago Cubs. It only got better from there.
Hernandez left the team at the end of that extension, an injury-fraught 1989 season, and spent one desultory year with the Cleveland Indians before retiring as a player. According to a terrific piece by Tim Britton in The Athletic – I would provide a link, but it is a paywall site – Hernandez “didn’t watch much baseball at all” once he retired. He did write a book in 1994, Pure Baseball, in which he took an insider’s look at two random regular season games – neither featuring the Mets – pitch-by-pitch. A read of that shows you why he was hired by the Mets as a broadcaster in 1999: the same fantastic analysis we get on a nightly basis on SNY is abundant in its pages. I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that book went a long way in the team’s decision to hire him. So basically, Keith Hernandez has been a part of the Mets’ story for almost 40 years – save that 10-year hiatus – and now, it’s been announced that he will have his number 17 retired before a game vs. the Miami Marlins at Citi Field on July 9. If there’s to be a game, that is, but that’s a story for another day… We could say it’s been a long time coming.
Somewhat to their credit, the Mets have been strict about their criteria for retiring numbers – so strict, in fact that the only requirement was that the player go into the Hall of Fame as a Met. So that meant only two, for the longest time: Seaver and Mike Piazza. Th previous ownership – Fred and Jeff Wilpon – finally loosened things up in 2019, announcing that Jerry Koosman would have his number enshrined the following season. Well, COVID-19 scuttled that idea, but it did happen in 2021, under new owner Steve Cohen. Remember, unlike the Wilpons, Cohen grew up a Mets fan and has a better feel for the sentiments out here than his predecessors ever did: putting it charitably, the Wilpons were tone deaf. The team announced this week that, yes, Hernandez would, indeed, have his number retired. It’s about time. While this fan doesn’t want Cohen to emulate the Yankees for this sort of thing, where the team has to issue numbers in the fifties and above because they’ve run out. “Join us at Yankee Stadium as we honor a great Yankee, Celerino Sanchez!” But it does gladden the heart to see the team finally embrace its own history. Heck, Hernandez let it slip in that Britton interview that they will be having an Old Timers Day in 2022, for the first time in God knows when. The Wilpons loved a team they did not own and owned a team they did not love. Under Cohen, the love is requited.
So, congratulations, Keith Hernandez! Here’s hoping it turns out worth the wait.