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Defying his own personal prediction, Keith Hernandez made it through his entire pregame ceremony without getting swept up in emotions.
With nary a tear in sight, Hernandez stood near the pitcher’s mound at Citi Field before the Mets’ game on Saturday and basked in the glow of his number retirement. After the fans finally stopped chanting his name, he strode to the microphone.
“New York has been great to me. The Mets have been great to me,” said Hernandez, who spoke about how “humbled” he was to see his No. 17 plaque finally get unveiled. “I thank you all, I am truly overwhelmed.”
With former teammates Mookie Wilson and Ed Lynch, plus ex-teammate and current broadcast partner Ron Darling sitting behind him, Hernandez spoke to a packed stadium like a king addressing his royal subjects. Mike Piazza, who himself has a number in the rafters, introduced Hernandez by noting that he could feel No. 8 (Gary Carter) with them as well.
Saturday brought a full docket for Hernandez, whose brother, daughters, grandson and other family members were flown in by Steve Cohen to support Hernandez on his special day. Things began with a media press conference an hour and a half before he stepped onto the field for the big show. In that press conference, he poked fun at himself, as he often does.
“Well, I’m a great procrastinator. I did my speech this morning,” Hernandez said, before recounting the scene on his way to the ballpark. “Driving in this morning, I saw all the 17 jerseys. That was kind of touching. It’ll be like old times tonight, except I’ll be in a suit instead of a uniform.”
The former 42nd round pick by the Cardinals only ended up in a Mets’ uniform because of a trade. With the benefit of hindsight, the famous transaction is easy to declare as a massive win for both the player and organization. But when it all went down, on June 15, 1983, Hernandez felt much differently.
“I’ve learned and read that it was a joyous day in Met nation. Little old me in St. Louis wasn’t very happy,” he said to uproarious laughter. “What did I know? It was a life and career changing event.”
Not until spring training of 1984 did he begin to see ownership’s vision. While, in Hernandez’s eyes, the talent was evident right away, so was something else.
“When I came here I noticed that there wasn’t a whole lot of unity on the team. The team had to get together and talk baseball. That’s what my first goal was. Let’s meet after the game. Let’s have a beer in the hotel bar, and let’s talk about hitting. Everyone started having fun, and things gradually changed.”
In succession, the team won 108 games in the 1986 regular season, knocked off the Astros in a tense National League Championship Series that Hernandez acknowledged was difficult for the fans, then became legends by beating the Red Sox in the World Series. The next year, Hernandez was named the first captain in club history, and when his playing days were over, he became even more ingrained in the organization by joining the SNY broadcast booth.
Now, he’s ensured of a forever status with the Mets, something that came from the glut of young talent he found himself surrounded by in that first spring training.
“Darryl, Doc, Ron, Ed, Mookie, Roger, Fitzy and Jesse,” he listed. “I was a little listless at that stage in my career. I needed another goal. These young guys inspired me and rejuvenated my career. I never dreamed we would turn it around so quickly.”
Hernandez remains very proud of the fact that the ‘86 Mets are one of just 12 teams to ever win 108 games in a season, something he said he researched himself on Baseball-Reference. He said he had a lot of fun coming to the ballpark that year, but when manager Davey Johnson publicly stated that the team was going to dominate in 1986, Hernandez wasn’t exactly convinced until he saw the proof in the pudding.
“I’m not going to take credit for whipping them into shape,” he said of the team’s unreal collection of youngsters. “They were great players, all young and so eager. They just had to learn how to play the game and make rookie mistakes. I was thrust into that [leadership] role because I was 30 years old, eight or nine years in the league.”
At some point early on Saturday morning — he estimated it was about 3:40 a.m. — Hernandez was awoken by a text. He said he was unable to go back to sleep after that. When he arrived at Citi Field a few hours later, his number 17 was everywhere: mowed into the outfield grass, plastered on the giant home run apple in center field, across the backs of thousands of fans, and on the sleeve of the Mets’ players who he said have been “a treat” to watch this season.
If the Mets can keep their mojo going, Hernandez will turn 69 years old during their postseason run. After that, it’s unknown how much longer he’ll be around the team. Hernandez has said he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be in the booth and eventually he’ll have to cut back on broadcasting games even more than he already has, though he wants to keep going for as long as he can.
But, as Mets’ radio voice Howie Rose said while he was emceeing the pregame ceremony, there is one more thing for Hernandez to check off his baseball bucket list now that the number retirement is out of the way.
“If there’s justice in this world, the next stop is Cooperstown.”