Keith Hernandez, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Since SNY is now showing the 1986 National League Championship Series, as well as the 1986 World Series, I'm going to share a little-known story involving an in-game phone call with my brother during Game 6 in Houston.
As you may recall, left-hander Bob Knepper took a 3-0 lead into the ninth, giving up only two hits and one walk through eight innings. Up to that point Knepper had been masterful, retiring the first seven batters in a row until Santana singled in the third inning. After walking Mookie Wilson, Knepper retired 14 in a row, accruing four consecutive 1-2-3 innings, until Tim Teufel's single with one out in the eighth.
Knepper had a sidearm delivery that enabled him to throw a hard sinker, and he also had a big sweeping curve at various speeds. The more he took something off that pitch, the more it broke. He also had a hard cutter, which he needed to use against right-handed hitters. In his younger days with the Giants he was a hard thrower, but with age he sacrificed power for terrific control and movement. He was no longer overpowering, but Knepper still threw hard enough, and his fastball had great movement, running in on lefties and sinking away from righties. He was particularly tough on left-handed hitters. Even though my career average against him is .330, I never relished facing him. I knew I had my work cut out for me whenever he toed the slab.
In Game 6, Knepper was cruising through eight innings. In today's game, Knepper would have been pulled in the seventh or eighth, but not back then. The Astros also had All-Star closer Dave Smith ready to go in the ninth. In 54 appearances, the right-hander had a 2.73 ERA, with 33 saves. But during the regular season, we had hammered Smith to the tune of a 15.00 ERA. Against every other National League team, Smith, the split-finger-throwing right-hander, was deadly. We had already tagged Smith with a blown save and loss in Game 3 when Lenny Dykstra hit a walk-off, two-run homer off him in the bottom of the ninth.
One glaring weakness of the '86 Astros was their lefties in the bullpen. They only had two lefties available in this series. One was starter Jim Deshaies, who went 12-5 with a 3.25 ERA in 26 starts. The other was Jeff Calhoun, who split the season in Triple A and the big leagues. He only appeared in 20 games during the regular season for the Astros.
We were a formidable lineup with speed and power vs. right-handers. With Lenny/Mookie and Wally at the top, it gave us speed that set up the middle of the lineup that included me, Gary, Darryl, and Ray. Not many right-handers beat us. I was surprised going into the series that Houston didn't make a trade for a veteran lefty for the playoffs. As it turned out, manager Hal Lanier never used Deshaies in the series at all, and he was forced to use Calhoun in his only appearance in that disastrous top of the 16th inning, in which Calhoun played a large part.
But my story starts in the top of the eighth inning. Things were looking bleak for the Mets. We were running out of time. Mike Scott, who had already beaten us twice with two complete games, giving up only one run in the process, loomed in their dugout ready to pitch Game 7 with full rest. I made the first out in the seventh on what was yet another 1-2-3 inning for Knepper. He had his way with me in my first three at-bats. I knew I wasn't going to hit in the eighth inning unless we just busted out in a big way. And that wouldn't happen until the ninth.
So as soon as the Astros were retired in the bottom half of the seventh inning, I sprinted off the field to our third base dugout and hustled up to our clubhouse. Now, I am going to have to describe to the best of my recollection the overland trek that led to the visitors' clubhouse, because there was nothing close to it in any other National League stadium.
The first leg of my journey was exiting the dugout (at top speed) closest to home plate. You took two steps down, where there was a small area where the restroom was located. From there, you made a hard 90 degree turn to the right and walked down about eight steps, then another 90 degree turn to the left, followed by a yet another 90 degree turn to the right. Here is where it got difficult. This final leg was navigating the staircase leading up to the clubhouse. This staircase was so long that it required a landing halfway up; so long that if you looked down from the top, you would feel like Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Vertigo. I don't know how many steps there were exactly, but they were every bit of three stories in an NYC high rise, maybe even more. I remember many a game in Houston, being tired after the game and having to scale those formidable steps. But this one journey upward will remain indelibly ingrained in my mind to my dying days.
I raced up those stairs and burst into the clubhouse, dashed to the clubhouse phone and immediately rang the stadium operator at the Astrodome. There were no cell phones in 1986, of course. At this time, players were not allowed to make any outgoing calls from the stadium unless they did so through the stadium operator. The calls had to be collect or charged to your personal account with your carrier, and all calls were logged by the operator. You had to tell the person who you were, who you were calling, and the phone number.
Guess who I rang up? My brother Gary, of course! I got him on the line looking for his magic, his positive vibe. Gary remembers being home watching the game with two of his golfing buddies and being totally shocked, stunned, flabbergasted, whatever you want to call it, at my calling him during the game. I had never done this before with him. I knew I had to hurry, since it was such a long way back to the dugout and the field. This wasn't going to be a long conversation, and I immediately expressed that to Gary. I told him, I'm going to hit in the ninth, Knepper is tough, how am I swinging? Gary's response was that Knepper is getting tired. He's starting to get the ball up. He's going to give you a pitch to hit. Get on top of it and drive it into the alley. You look great! Get up there and rip him.
That was all that I needed to hear. I rushed back down that long staircase, getting back in the dugout just in time to take the field with my teammates for the bottom of the eighth.
We all know what transpired next. I would get up with Mookie on second, one out, in a 3-1 ballgame. I remember getting up to the plate, ready for battle. I choked up an extra inch because I knew Knepper would pitch me in. On a 2-1 count, I got a high fastball, running in on my hands. It wasn't in enough. I drilled a line drive up the right-center field alley, just as my brother instructed, scoring Mookie to make it a 3-2 game. I would eventually score the tying run on a Ray Knight sacrifice fly. The rest is history. Our boys did it again, clutch as ever, with our backs against the wall.
We had never been hard-pressed during the regular season after our four-game sweep of the Cardinals at St. Louis in late April. But in every game except Game 2 of the NLCS, we had to rally late to win. We showed the world what we were made of. This would spill over and shine brightly in the World Series that followed.
Later in the winter, I was invited to Las Vegas by the Hilton family to watch the Mike Tyson vs. Trevor Berbick heavyweight championship fight. My brother joined me. At a pre-fight cocktail party, we met former Los Angeles Rams/Washington Redskins head coach, George Allen. The coach told me that our team showed great character, worthy of the 108-win season and a World Championship. Coming from him, that meant a lot to me.
As for my brother Gary, he has always been my greatest supporter, my good luck charm, my talisman.
Watch Gary, Keith and Ron during Beyond the Booth Live, every Thursday at 4 p.m. Check out our most recent episode below: