Anthony McCarron, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Keith Hernandez is sitting in the press dining room at Citi Field on a recent afternoon, leaning back, relaxed. Why not? He's talking about the greatest individual season of his playing career, a baseball summer 40 years ago when the sweet-swinging lefty hit so much he shared the National League MVP Award with a slugger he admired.
He knows he and Willie "Pops" Stargell own a little slice of baseball history, perhaps forever. They're the only players ever to tie in the voting for the coveted award.
"It'll never happen again," Hernandez says. "It'll be a baseball trivia question way down the road. And people will go, 'Who's Willie Stargell? Who's Keith Hernandez?' a hundred years from now."
That seems unfathomable now, considering the 1979 season catapulted Hernandez into stardom. The then-Cardinals first baseman led the National League in batting (.344), runs (116) and doubles (48), while adding career bests in hits (210) and RBI (105). He also won the second of 11 consecutive Gold Glove Awards. It was also the final big year in Stargell's Hall of Fame career, as he helped guide the "We Are Family" Pirates to a World Series title.
But who knows what might have happened, at least to Hernandez, if not for a talk he had with Cards' manager Ken Boyer early in the season.
Hernandez, now a popular analyst for SNY on Mets games, was batting just .216 entering a May 6 game, and admits now, "I was worried a little bit." He had enjoyed a breakout 1977 season, batting .291 with 91 RBI and then slipped to .255 in 1978.
In the last game of a series against the Pirates, Hernandez had three hits, raising his average 20 points, to .236. The Cardinals traveled to Houston afterward and Boyer, who had also managed Hernandez in Triple-A and saw him win a batting title in Tulsa, sought out Hernandez on the team flight.
"He said, 'You're my first baseman. You're my third hitter. I know you can play. Just relax. Go have fun. I'm going to sink or swim in my job with you,'" Hernandez recalls. "He was really there for me."
It helped. After an off-day, Hernandez went 4-for-4 against the Astros' Ken Forsch. He got over .300 by the end of the month and kept soaring.
Boyer's faith is one of Hernandez's favorite memories from '79. Another is how he fended off Pete Rose when Rose made a late run at the batting title.
Hernandez batted .373 in June, .333 in July and a whopping .384 in August. He seemed a shoo-in for the batting title, "something I never dreamed of," Hernandez notes.
But Rose, who already owned three batting crowns, had a blazing final month. When Hernandez's Cardinals faced Rose's Phillies, Hernandez would stand at first base, hoping Rose wouldn't get a hit.
"He made a September rush on me," Hernandez says. "If anybody else is making a challenge on me, it would've been different. But it was Pete Rose. Charlie Hustle. That added extra pressure. I was 25."
As Hernandez details the final stretches of the batting race, he cites hitting figures. "Fact check that," Hernandez says. After a look at baseball-reference.com, here's how it went: Hernandez was never below .340 after Aug. 17 and batted .356 in September, finishing the season at .344. Rose was hitting .309 on Sept. 6, but got to .334 on Sept. 20, just eight points back. Rose batted .450 over his final 24 games, including an 11-game stretch in which he batted .628.
Still, Rose couldn't catch Hernandez, and Hernandez had his first and only batting title.
"I withstood his late charge," Hernandez says. "I would've had a better September if Pete wasn't dogging me. Who knows what I would've hit?"
The Cardinals finished a distant third in the NL East that season, going 86-76, 12 games behind the Pirates. The 39-year-old Stargell led Pittsburgh with 32 homers, fifth in the NL, and slugged .552, good for eighth.
"He was the heart and soul of that team," Hernandez says. "The rock, the anchor, the foundation."
Hernandez adored Stargell. When Hernandez was, as he puts it now, "young and struggling" in his career, Stargell always had a kind word when he arrived at first base.
"He, Pete (Rose) and (Steve) Garvey were encouraging to me," Hernandez recalls. "I remember Stargell telling me, 'Hey, I like your swing.' Ironically, two of those three people - one I'd share the award with and the other I'd battle for the batting title.
"To share it with Willie - I was in awe of Willie. And he was such a big teddy bear."
Both Hernandez and Stargell finished with 216 points in voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Eight different players got at least one first-place vote, including Hernandez's future teammates on the Mets, Gary Carter and Ray Knight.
Stargell got more than twice as many first-place votes than Hernandez - 10 to 4 - but he was left completely off four of the 24 ballots cast. Hernandez had eight second-place votes and seven thirds, while being named on every ballot.
Hernandez was both stunned and delighted when the phone rang and it was Jack Lang, from the BBWAA.
"He actually said, 'How would you feel if you had to share it?' Hernandez says. "'You and Willie Stargell finished in a tie.'"
"I said, 'It wouldn't diminish it. I'm fine with it, shoot.' I thought it was odd, asking me if it was OK."
With the Cardinals at Citi Field for a series against the Mets - the teams finish a four-game set Sunday - memories from his St. Louis days flood back for Hernandez. In fact, Saturday was the 36th anniversary of the trade that sent him from St. Louis to the Mets.
Not only did the Cardinals draft and develop Hernandez, he grew up rooting for them because his father, John, played baseball with Stan Musial in the Navy.
When Musial would later come to San Francisco to play the Giants, he'd leave tickets for Hernandez's family and invite them to the clubhouse at Candlestick Park. Years later, Hernandez made his MLB debut at Candlestick on Aug. 30, 1974.
"It was the same clubhouse that was there when I got called up," Hernandez says. "I walked into that clubhouse and I looked down that row where I had sat in between Musial on my left and Ken Boyer on my right."
His ties to the club remain deep, so much so that he's written into his will that his '79 MVP Award and other trophies won while wearing red will be bequeathed to the Cards' Hall of Fame when he dies.
"What are my kids going to do with them?" Hernandez says. "I have some things I'm going to give to the Mets, too, to their Hall of Fame. I've got some awards I won that are pretty nice when I played here, too."