Keith Hernandez

Went out to Dodger Stadium to watch the game.  More of a pilgrimage that I purposely had been putting off.  Inside the stadium I heard my name called and recognized the voice.  John Hernandez, my little league and youth league baseball coach and father of Keith Hernandez, first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, was standing and waving at me.  He insisted I sit with him and Gary, Keith’s brother.  Mr. Hernandez walked me toward first base to meet Keith.  Stadium security came forward to wave us off but Mr. Hernandez explained he was Keith’s father.  Keith came over and asked what I was up to.  I told him I was pursuing an acting career.  I suggested he do some acting in the off season, at least commercials, but he smiled and said he would stick to baseball.  “Watch the game, relax – have a beer.”  Fuck you, Keith, I thought.  Don’t patronize me.  I was twice as good as you.  I held my tongue.

Joining Gary (Tanglefoot) we sat down waiting for the game to start and talked about old times.  I told Gary and Mr. Hernandez how beautiful I thought Mrs. Hernandez was while growing up.  Mr. Hernandez smiled.  A Texas beauty with a slight Southern accent she always treated me well.  Mr. Hernandez was a Spaniard and quite handsome.  Strong, broad shouldered and left handed as are his sons and myself, we lefties stuck together.  He was a terrific ballplayer in his day as the star of Mission High School in San Francisco.  In the minor leagues he was beaned by a pitch injuring his vision at least enough to chase him out of professional baseball.  One day at the house Keith broke out his dad’s scrapbook.  A modest man only by going through his scrapbook would you know he was a legend in San Francisco High School baseball history.  His 640 batting average was going to be tough to beat.

“You know you were better than Keith,” Mr. Hernandez began going back in time.  He told me a story I was unaware of.  During the three weekends of little league tryouts Mr. Hernandez noticed how talented I was and determined to draft me on his team.  During the batting section of the tryouts he was pitching and in order to make me look bad to the other coaches he threw extra hard to me, including curves, etc.  I was nine.  One night my mother received a call from Carl Vallero, the manager of the little league team that Mr. Hernandez was the coach for, and told my mom I had made the team.  She was shocked.  I hadn’t told anyone I was trying out for little league.  Each week I read the Pacific Tribune, our hometown newspaper, as well as the San Francisco Chronicle sports section checking on the Giants performance.  I read about the tryouts coming up and since I had been playing at least since I was seven I tried out.

Mr. Hernandez didn’t just teach us boys about baseball but also set an example of how men are supposed to be.  As a twelve year old center field sensation my arrogance was as high as my talent great.  I must have said something to offend Mr. Hernandez because our manager, Mr. Vallero, came to me during practice and told me to go and apologize to Mr. Hernandez who was walking alone in the outfield with his head held down, hands clasped behind his back.  Meeting him in the outfield I walked alongside and apologized for whatever it was I had said.  His face lit up and his hands fell free to his side.  “Remember Mike,” he stated, “the people you meet on the way up are the same people you will meet on the way back down.”

In these growing up years I would watch Mr. Hernandez giving tips to rival ballplayers on other teams and was resentful.  Why was he helping the enemy, I thought.  Paying attention like young Macedonian warriors we learned before you could become a good ballplayer you had to master fear of the baseball.  To demonstrate he would walk ten to fifteen paces and then challenge the kids to throw the baseball hard at him.  He would catch it – barehanded.  Lesson learned.

“Always look fastball.  If it breaks into a curve you can adjust.  If you’re looking curve a fastball will blow by you.  Go for line drives.  If in a slump – hit up the middle.  Popping up frequently – hit the top half of the ball.”

In his garage Mr. Hernandez rigged a tennis ball inside a sock tied to a string that was swinging from the rafter.  By tossing the ball away from you at one angle, it would come back towards you as an outside corner pitch.  Toss at a second angle and it would come back down the middle.  Another angle and you had your inside corner pitch to work on.  Great batting practice all by yourself for as long as you want.

Playing for Terra Nova High School in Pacifica I was already on the varsity as a sophomore.  I noticed the Frosh-Soph baseball coach was not playing Keith at first base.  Buddy Papadakis was at first base and tall, lanky and left handed he looked the model of a first baseman.  But Keith was a natural first baseman and had been groomed for that position since little league.  One day during practice I went to coach Miller and told him Keith was the better first baseman and should be playing at that position.  Coach Miller just shrugged his shoulders.

After Keith’s freshman year Mr. Hernandez sold his home in Pacifica and moved over the hill down the peninsula.  Keith spend his last three years as the star quarterback and outstanding first baseman for Capuchino High School in San Bruno.  I always wondered if this was the real reason Mr. Hernandez moved.  He couldn’t allow coach Miller to block Keith’s destiny.

I accepted a full ride baseball scholarship to UC Berkeley and during my freshman year Keith, a senior in high school, came out to watch us practice.  We sat down and talked.  He had a decision to make.  Go to Berkeley on a full ride baseball scholarship or enter the minor leagues.  He chose the minor leagues and fate was sealed.  Good choices bring good things.  Poor choices result in living the rest of your life in Podunk.  How well I know.

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