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Keith Hernandez revolutionized the role of first baseman. During his illustrious career with the World Series-winning St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets, he was a perennial fan favorite, earning eleven consecutive Gold Gloves, a National League co-MVP Award, and a batting title. But it was his unique blend of intelligence, humor, and talent — not to mention his unflappable leadership, playful antics, and competitive temperament — that transcended the sport and propelled him to a level of renown that few other athletes have achieved, including his memorable appearances on the television show Seinfeld.
Now, with a striking mix of candor and self-reflection, Hernandez takes us along on his journey to baseball immortality. There are the hellacious bus rides and south-of-the-border escapades of his minor league years. His major league benchings, unending plate adjustments, and role in one of the most exciting batting races in history against Pete Rose.
Indeed, from the Little League fields of Northern California to the dusty proving grounds of triple-A ball to the grand stages of Busch Stadium and beyond, I’m Keith Hernandez reveals as much about America’s favorite pastime as it does about the man himself. What emerges is an honest and compelling assessment of the game’s past, present, and future: a memoir that showcases one of baseball’s most unique and experienced minds at his very best.
I love baseball.
But I find most books about baseball players boring. There seems to be a standard template for how you write them. Maybe it’s because there are so many of these books out there, but it feels like they’ve become a paint-by-numbers exercise, dictating what you talk about and how you talk about it.
Forget that. I’m Keith Hernandez. I want to write this my way.
When I was a kid, my father would come home from his twenty-four-hour fireman shift and bring fresh San Francisco sourdough bread from the local bakery. If we were lucky, he also would have stopped by the Spanish market and picked up chorizo 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.”
So I’ll need to keep things easy and moving along. I want you to feel the spontaneity I feel when I reflect.
And I have specific periods I want to focus on. (In the broadcast booth, I find that when you try to talk about everything, you wind up saying nothing. People just tune you out, and even if they don’t, they can’t possibly learn very much.) I want to talk about my development as a baseball player and how it got me to the major leagues; I want to talk about how I gained the confidence to thrive in the bigs despite a grueling haul; and, finally, I want to talk about how my development as a young player affects how I see the game today from my seat in the broadcast booth.
Because I’ve spent most of my life around baseball, I have good stories to tell. And I love sharing them with others.
Like the other night: I was sitting at a table at Harvest on Fort Pond in Montauk, New York, with my good friends Paul and Chantal Weinhold. The place was packed with folks enjoying the cozy environment and excellent food, and I had brought a couple of bottles from my wine cellar for the table. We were happy, and the talk was easy and fun. It’s always that way with Paul and Chantal, a married couple I’ve known since my playing days with the Mets.1
Somewhere along the way, we started talking about baseball—specifically, this year’s Mets team. Paul, who’s a psychologist and finds the mental aspects of the game fascinating, asked about a Mets starting pitcher, a flamethrower who was successful at getting batters out but had a tough time holding them on base during the rare occasions they got on. The opposing team had made five swipes against him a few nights earlier.
“He’s been doing it one way for years,” Paul said, referring to the pitcher’s delivery to home plate. “And now people expect him to change. Can he?”
“Why not?” I said. “Doc [Gooden] did it at the start of his major league career. He had the same issue.”
“But how difficult is that sort of adjustment?” Chantal asked. “After all, like the rest of us, aren’t baseball players creatures of habit?”
I said it would take time, and, yes, some players get stuck when opponents expose a weakness.
“It’s more about mental toughness than the actual adjustment,” I said, and I told them how Nolan Ryan would storm around in between pitches, strutting like John Wayne ready for a gunfight in the town square. “You got the feeling that, if he had to, Nolan could throw the ball with his other hand and still find a way to get batters out. For this guy on the Mets, he’s got to tap into that sort of mentality: This is my mound, and I will do anything to protect it. After that, it just becomes a matter of decreasing his delivery time to home plate while not giving up any of his outstanding stuff. It’s that simple.”
Then I recalled a story I had been told years earlier. To me, it defines that territorial attitude a pitcher must have to be successful.
“Did I ever tell you what Don Sutton told me? About what he did when Tommy Lasorda tried to mess with his pregame routine?” I asked while topping off the glasses with a 2007 Insignia. Paul and Chantal shook their heads, and I could see they wanted me to go on. I mean, it’s Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton, two Hall of Famers, so it was not a hard sell.
The Dodgers were in Pittsburgh for a series. They lost the first game, and Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers’ then-manager, was bent out of shape because the Pirates had stolen, like, five bases during the game. This was 1979 or 1980—Lasorda’s third or fourth year as their manager. So Lasorda, who liked to cuss, came into the visitors’ clubhouse after the game and began screaming at his pitchers. All of them. He yelled “You motherf—ers” this and “You c—suckers” that, and he told them that they all were coming out the next day, before the game, to practice holding runners on base.
Don Sutton, a veteran who was having another stellar season, raised his hand and said, “Hey, I’m pitching tomorrow. You still want me to come in at three?”
“You’re goddamn right!” yelled Lasorda.
“Okay, I’ll come in at three,” Don said.
The next day Sutton and the rest of the starting staff showed up. It was the middle of the afternoon and on lousy Astroturf, so it was, like, 100 degrees. Lasorda had them all out there in the heat for about forty minutes, working on holding runners on base.
The game started and Sutton took the mound in the bottom of the first. Omar Moreno, the speedy base-stealing center fielder, led off for the Pirates, and Sutton gave up an immediate single. On purpose.
“I just threw a BP fastball down the middle” is what Don told me later. Sutton had great control and command of all five of his exceptional pitches: In the sixty-four times I faced him over my career, he walked me twice. That’s 1 per 32 at-bats, and I averaged 1 walk per 6 at-bats over my career against the rest of the league. So if Don Sutton wanted to give you something you could slap, he could do it. The question was, why?
Now Sutton had Moreno on first—the exact situation Lasorda had him and the other pitchers working on before the game—and Sutton looked for his sign from the catcher, went into his stretch, and balked! On purpose!
“Lasorda never messed with me again,” Sutton said.
Even though they’re not ballplayers, Paul and Chantal understood the psychological significance of this story. Sutton was saying, Okay, Lasorda, this is my day to pitch and my mound. I’m in control! Don’t you dare screw with that again. And a pitcher who’s got that sort of cojones—giving a batter a free pass to second base just to make a point to his manager—will also have the guts and the grit to figure out how to keep winning ball games. He will make adjustments.2
“Now,” I said to Chantal and Paul, “all quality major leaguers—pitchers and hitters—have that sort of moxie. Sutton had it in spades, of course, but everyone’s got to have at least a little bit. Because a baseball career is really just a series of adjustments. Those who adjust get to continue, while those who don’t need to find another line of work. So if this kid from the Mets is going to be around awhile, and I think he will be, he’ll make the necessary adjustments and get over this speed bump, because it’s his mound and nobody’s going to take it away from him. He’ll do what needs to be done, period. And the longer he can do that, the longer he’ll be in the league.”
Then I couldn’t help myself—here we were talking baseball, and it brought me to another place. Another time. So I told my captive audience that I had one more story for them:
It was 1978, the year after my first breakout season with the Cardinals. The Reds were in town, and they had Tom Seaver going on the mound. Tom, of course, pitched a brilliant complete game and beat us 2–1 with vintage Seaver stuff. Hard, off-the-table breaking ball, blazing fastball, painting the corners like a Dutch master. And I remember coming back to the bench on that hot and humid night in St. Louis, after my second or third futile at-bat, and blurting out, “Goddamn, he’s throwing hard!” And sitting next to me was Lou Brock, who simply said in his very soft and understated manner, “You should have seen him in ’69.”
Eleven days later, we were in Cincinnati and, lo and behold, Seaver was back on the mound, and I went up to the plate and dug in with my back foot extra deep to get ready for the heater. But to my surprise, I saw that Tom had nothing on his fastball. He couldn’t break a pane of glass, as we say. Is he playing with me? So in my second at-bat I was suspicious and got ready for the gas. But it was the same thing—no fastball! This wasn’t the Tom Seaver from eleven days ago—it was some “cunny thumber,” throwing big, sweeping, slow curveballs and sinking changeups over the outside corner, spotting fastballs, and throwing sliders inside just enough to keep me honest. He was tossing salad up there! But he made the most of what he had, and he never missed over the plate—if he missed, he missed out of the strike zone. All of this showed the intelligence, and confidence, of the man—he must have known in that first inning or warm-up session that he had zero and adapted accordingly.
“And what was the result?” I asked the table.
“A no-hitter,” said Paul.
“That’s right!” I said. “The only no-hitter of Tom’s career. Imagine that! There had to have been a bit of satisfaction knowing that he’d achieved it without anything close to his usual dominant power stuff.”3
“Had you ever seen an adjustment that stark by a player?” asked Chantal.
“Never,” I said. “Before or since. One night he was Dr. Jekyll, the next, Mr. Hyde. It was amazing. But, again, Tom just understood what had to be done and made it happen.”
From there, the conversation at the table moved away from baseball, but the theme of performance and mindset hung around, a steady driver for the rest of the evening’s talk. And that’s the beauty of a good baseball story. It not only slides well into conversation but also feeds conversation. That’s why it’s the national pastime: it fits in with our own stories, ballplayers or not. Baseball is additive rather than disruptive or merely benign.
So how do I start my baseball story? How about this:
Hi. I’m Keith Hernandez—former St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets first baseman turned broadcaster. If you didn’t follow the game in the 1980s (or catch today’s telecast), you may think we’ve never crossed paths. But you have seen Seinfeld, right? Oh, that Keith Hernandez. Yup, that’s me.
I guess that could work, but I’d really just be selling us both short. Because when you’re fortunate enough to be around the game and in the public eye as much as I’ve been, you develop standard responses whenever people want to know something about you. Even if you’re good at “being yourself,” you still have your go-to’s. And that sort of a beginning would send me on a path of a lot of go-to’s.
Throw it on the boring pile…
I want to go deeper. I want to strip everything else away to reveal something about myself you can’t “discover” in a Google search. I want to get to the core of my baseball story.
I should note that my original intention was to slog through my life, dragging you, the reader, along with me in this slow, chronological procession. Like a death march (and standard operating procedure for a sports memoir). Interestingly, I think my brief time on the Seinfeld set those many years ago has helped inspire me to do otherwise. Because it was there, seeing Jerry and company at work, that I first caught a glimpse of storytelling’s creative process. Going into the week of shooting “The Boyfriend” episodes, I had thought that we would simply stick with the script. But once I was on set, I saw that the script—the original idea—was really just a starting place. There were three writers in addition to the show’s creators—Larry David and Jerry—and then, of course, the incredibly talented principal actors. All of them had input into each scene. It was very experimental—Let’s try this; how about this?—and I was fascinated by just how much the original scene could change once the ensemble’s creative juices were flowing. And when you think about it, that inventiveness and spontaneity is actually a lot like playing in a baseball game, where you’re forced to improvise almost constantly. Well, then, that’s the way I wanted to go about this endeavor: loose and ready for anything.
Then it hit me one day in the grocery store:
That plane ride to Florida…1972…My first spring training…
That’s where I want to start the book! So I thought for a while until I hit on another plane ride:
The year 1979…My manager told me, “You’ll be in the lineup every day, even if it costs me my job.”…My season turned around…
And those became my goalposts: Every time I tried to move beyond ’79, I came back to that span of years—particularly to ’74, ’75, and ’76. Those were the hardest yet most instructive years.
Talk to any player who was able to achieve a sustained career in the major leagues and ask him what the most important years in his career were. He’ll say, “The hard ones.” Because it’s in those struggles, when you’re fighting to survive, that you’re actually learning how to thrive in baseball. (Though you may not realize it at the time, it’s happening.) But first, the game will have its pound of flesh. And for some of us, like me, it was more like two pounds. You have to keep fighting. You have to bare your teeth and growl and claw and scratch until one day, still hanging on, you realize, Hey, I’m a bona fide big leaguer and a damned good one!
So that’s what I want this book to be. A story about a promising talent who became a professional ballplayer with a lot of expectations but not necessarily with the moxie to “own it”—to get in the box against guys like Tom Seaver, Don Sutton, and Nolan Ryan and say, “Okay, I’m gonna go toe-to-toe with you, and I’m gonna win.”
That sort of confidence came, but it took a while, and that journey—the making of a player like Keith Hernandez—feels like something worth sharing.
Something to chew on.
I realize that if you’re an ’86 Mets fan or you’re looking for the story behind Whitey Herzog’s ’82 world-champ Cardinals, this book is a prequel to the movie. The in-depth stories about those teams are terrific but have also been exhaustively celebrated in magazines, films, and, of course, books (I’ve written a couple of them). My hope is that after reading this, you will better appreciate my role in and contribution to both of those storied teams and franchises.
I don’t want to gloss over my “hard” years. They’re too important to me—to my love of baseball. Because after withstanding them, I could withstand anything.
Okay. Let’s begin our journey.
1 I met Paul, who’s nickname is “The Mayor” because he can start a conversation with anybody, at the old Vertical Club, which was located on 60th Street, between First and Second Avenues, right by the 59th Street Bridge.
2 It also shows a certain tenacity and stubbornness that is required in an athlete. But I wouldn’t recommend this approach if you’re a marginal, struggling, or striving young player. You’re talking about a future Hall of Famer and a 300-plus-game winner in the prime of his career!
3 Whenever I see Tom, we laugh about his magnificent start. I tell him he had nothing, and he agrees.
Bricks and Mortar
I’m in a grocery store in South Florida, buying eggs.
But anybody looking at me standing here would say I’m staring at the eggs. There are rows and rows of them—dozens of raw eggs in delicate shells tucked away in soft packaging. One misstep by any of their handlers—human or domesticated fowl—en route to this shelf and splat, there goes the chance to become somebody’s omelet.
I chuckle at this notion. Kind of like the perilous route from Little League to the majors.
And now I’m looking past the eggs—I’m a hundred miles away. I’m thinking. No, wait, I’m dreaming. I’m lost in something that happened years ago.
The phone buzzes in my pocket. It brings me back.
It’s my book agent.
“I was just thinking of a good place to start the book,” I say.
The book agent gets excited, but I cut him off.
“I gotta buy some eggs. Can I call you back in twenty?”
He says okay, and I hang up and grab a dozen eggs. I go for the organic because that’s what my present company at the condo wants. She’s famished.
Publix Super Markets are king in South Florida. Every region of the country has their mega chains, and in the lovely Sunshine State, it’s Publix. They got one on every corner. And you never know who you might run into. A bunch of former players live down here. I sometimes hang with Rusty Staub, Jim Kaat, Jim Palmer, and Mike Schmidt, to name a few. It’s kind of like Disneyland—all these characters from the sport’s yesteryear walking around. And they all shop at Publix. But I don’t run into anyone today—it’s just me and the eggs.
I drive home and park the 2006 Mercedes-Benz C55 AMG next to the 2015 BMW 650i. The Benz is great—the best car I’ve ever owned. Zoom! But the BMW has a convertible top, and that sure is delightful in the warm Florida winters. Such decadence. But you know what? I’ve worked hard my entire life to get where I am, and as with my poultry companions in the passenger seat, it wasn’t a smooth ride by any stretch. More than once, I ended up with egg on my face.
I get home, and Hadji, my fifteen-year-old Bengal cat, greets me at the door. My Sancho Panza. I put the eggs in the fridge, step outside onto the balcony, and call my book agent back.
I’m standing out on the balcony, looking over the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s a beautiful day, and there are a lot of boats on the water. A bunch of teenagers are on one; they’re listening to music and the girls are sunbathing. My agent picks up and wants to know more about my idea for the book’s opening. So I tell him the story I was thinking about back in the grocery store.
1972. I was getting ready to go to my first spring training. My dad, who was this tough Depression-era guy and hated blue jeans because they reminded him of his adolescent poverty, said he was going to help me pick out my wardrobe for the plane ride east.
“C’mon, Dad,” I said. I was a kid of the ’60s, so jeans were cool.
But he just shook his head, and we went out shopping. We came back with a long-sleeved solid purple shirt, a pair of black knit slacks with cheesy patterns stitched into them, and white patent-leather shoes.1 Ouch. When my summer league baseball coach, Tony Santora, stopped by the house to say goodbye and wish me luck, he saw my outfit and said, “Keith, you look like the Cuban flag!”
I hugged my parents goodbye at San Francisco International and flew east with this other kid, Marty DeMerritt, a big redheaded pitcher from South San Francisco who the St. Louis Cardinals had drafted twenty rounds before me. Marty wore an outfit that was somehow worse than mine—red on red. He looked like Bozo the Clown.
We’d faced each other in high school and summer leagues, so I knew Marty competitively, which is why we both acted like it was no big deal when the plane flew into a giant thunderstorm over the Gulf of Mexico. But I’m sure, deep down, Marty was terrified and, like me, thought we were going to die. I had never flown before, and there was all this lightning and the plane was bouncing up and down. Having been on a lot of airplane rides since, I can easily say that approach into Tampa is number one on the chart of check-your-lunch flights.
Safely landed in the Sunshine State, I was still scared to death—I was eighteen years old and suddenly on my own.
We collected our bags, and a Cardinals representative escorted us to a waiting van for transport to St. Petersburg, a small city less than thirty miles from central Tampa and home to the Cardinals’ spring training complex. As we headed out, I felt like I was in a foreign country. Gone were the Northern California redwoods and sequoias, the coastal mountain ranges; instead there was a flat landscape dotted with palm trees and prehistoric-looking birds called pelicans.
We came up to a series of cheap roadside motels scattered on both sides of the highway. Marty and I had been told our motel assignments in advance, and I was dropped off first. I stepped out of the van into the hot, sticky air, said goodbye to Marty, and headed to the motel’s little office to check in. I can’t remember the name of the motel, but it certainly wasn’t the Ritz—just two twin beds, a shower, a black-and-white television, and one of those electric AC units hanging out a window.
As with the other five hundred players in camp, this would be my home throughout spring training.2
I settled in quickly—I didn’t have much stuff—and went to my suitcase for my Strat-O-Matic, a board game popular at the time and sort of the precursor to fantasy baseball. There were pitcher and player cards, and you’d roll three dice for the outcomes: hit, strikeout, walk, out, error. I’d invested months in the game over the winter, playing the entire National League 1971 season, managing all the teams, playing both sides. And I’d gotten through 127 games of the 162-game schedule.
That’s 762 games.
Multiply that by the half hour it took to play one game, and I’d spent over two weeks of my life dedicated to the 1971 Strat-O-Matic season. I’d stashed the game, along with the fat spooled notebook where I kept extensive statistics game by game, month by month, at the bottom of my suitcase beneath my clothes. But the Strat-O-Matic wasn’t there. It was gone!
Instantly, I knew why.
“Dad, where’s my Strat-O-Matic?” I frantically yelled into the receiver of the motel phone. My parents had said I could call home, collect, once a week.
“You gotta concentrate on real baseball, Keith,” my dad said. “No Strat-O-Matic.”
Oh, the horror. Dad had been one step ahead of me—he’d figured it out and taken the game from my bag before I left. I telephoned my brother, who was on the road somewhere with the University of California Golden Bears baseball team—Gary was their starting first baseman—but he was little help. He just laughed and laughed. But I was crushed. I would never know who won the pennant that 1971 Strat-O-Matic season.3
There was no escape now—I was a professional baseball player, and no roll of the dice was going to help me get through.
1Patent-leather shoes, believe it or not, were “in” back then and worn by most of the big leaguers.
- Praise for I'm Keith Hernandez
- "Meeting Keith when I was 13 remains one of the greatest moments of my life. After reading this book which so accurately describes the grit, dedication, and perseverance it takes to become one of the Baseball's greats, my appreciation for Keith--as a player, as a colleague, and as a friend--has reached new heights. It hits home, as do his keen insights into the game's past, present, and future. If you love baseball, you MUST read this book."—Alex Rodriguez
- "As a longtime baseball fan, I appreciated learning about the evolution of one of my favorite ball players--Keith Hernandez. Even when he is writing about his slumps, his book is a hit. I recommend it."—Gay Talese, author of High Notes and A Silent Season of a Hero
- "'Don't think,' said Crash Davis to Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham. 'You can only hurt the ball club.' No one ever said that to Keith Hernandez, the thinking person's ballplayer. 'You're gonna have to learn your clichés,' Crash advised Nuke. 'They're your friends.' This, too, is a rule that, fortunately, Hernandez ignores in this romp through his life before, during and after baseball. Except there is no life after baseball."—George F. Will
- "I have known Keith my entire adult life and this revealing and honest autobiography made me smile and weep. Everyone has their own 'bruises' and Keith lets us in on what it takes to survive the troughs and tough times to make himself into the MVP he was and fine man he is today. Incredible perseverance of the human spirit with the help of his family, Keith will always be the greatest ballplayer I ever played with. I'm proud to call him my friend."—Ron Darling
- "Poignant and unexpectedly literary."—Sports Illustrated
- "Even at 64, Hernandez has maintained the coolness quotient that made him a star in New York more than 30 years ago."—Newsday
"5 Books High Performers Should Read This Month" "In this candid memoir, the legendary first baseman reveals how his early years were strewn with insecurities. Hernandez opens up about how he gained the confidence to thrive in the major leagues."—Equinox's "Furthermore"
- "If you pick up "I'm Keith Hernandez," you'll get a lot of incredible stories... Overall, the memoir captures what it's probably like to hang out with Keith."—MLB's "Cut 4"
- "[I'M KEITH HERNANDEZ] reflects on his life, career and the state of baseball today."—WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show"
- "All in all, Hernandez delivers his book with disarmingly self-deprecating humor and blunt candor - 100-percent authentic to who he is in the broadcast booth."—East Hampton Star
- Selected for "Behind the Bestsellers" roundup—Publisher's Weekly
- "An impressionistic account of his baseball boyhood, and a kind of 'Remembrance of At-Bats Past,' complete with a baked good to set the memories in motion...I'm Keith Hernandez is by turns crust and soft. It's pretty good, too."—New York Times Book Review
- "Illuminating and heartfelt memoir."—Memphis Flyer
- Selected for "6 Baseball Books for Mid-season Reading"—Christian Science Monitor
- "Hernandez writes with frankness and honesty in his baseball memoir...[he] still has the ability to engage readers with thoughts on batting slumps, his worries about a fixation on home runs, and his concerns about baseball's escalating use of statistical analysis."—Christian Science Monitor
- "The book offers an interesting perspective of what it takes to be a success in baseball."—Chicago Tribune
- "Just as he is on Mets and Fox postseason broadcasts, he is candid and that makes for entertaining, informative reading in I'm Keith Hernandez."—Tulsa World
- "The book offers an interesting perspective of what it takes to be a success in baseball."—The Daily World
- On Sale
- May 7, 2019
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Back Bay Books