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Keith Hernandez On Baseball, 'Seinfeld' And Being His Own 'Worst Enemy'

Jun 4, 2018
Originally published on June 6, 2018 12:08 pm
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. You might know our guest, Keith Hernandez, as a big league ballplayer or as a memorable guest on two episodes of "Seinfeld," and if you're a New York Mets fan, you might know his cat, Hadji. In 17 seasons in the big leagues, Hernandez was known for hitting wicked line drives and for dazzling defensive play at first base. He won 11 straight Gold Glove Awards, a batting title and a National League Most Valuable Player award on his way to two World Series championships with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Mets. His last season as a player was in 1990, but he got into broadcasting and is now a TV analyst for Mets games.

He's fan-friendly, known for playing catch with kids before a game and, once, working the gate at the stadium parking lot. He's also built quite a social media following, at times featuring videos with Hadji, his now famous 15-year-old Bengal cat. Hernandez has a new memoir which focuses less on his glory days in the game than on times he struggled, especially when he was young and trying to adjust to big-league pressure, big-league pitching and the stresses of playing every day. His new book is called "I'm Keith Hernandez."

Well, Keith Hernandez, welcome to FRESH AIR. I wonder if you could begin by just taking back to a moment in the book where you're playing Double-A ball in the Texas League where the distances are, well, Texas-sized. And you had trouble getting away from a game once in Memphis - and what it was like. Share that.

KEITH HERNANDEZ: Sure. Well, Little Rock, Double-A, 1973 - I'm 19 years old. We go the two-hour bus ride to Memphis to play the - was a Mets affiliate at that time, and it was a special day with a promotion. They had it - the stadium was - in the minor leagues, you only - they didn't fill up stadiums. This was a big promotional game, and it was filled up. And it rained all the entire bus ride to Memphis. It rained all day. It rained into the night, and they were so determined not to lose the gate that the grounds crew - the poor grounds crew - when the rain abated, they poured gasoline on the field and lit it on fire - the dirt - to try to dry off the dirt. And then they flew in a helicopter to come in and hover at around 50 feet or whatever. And with its - so it would blow off the water off the outfield, off the infield.

And we finally played that game - probably didn't play it until around - it was a day - supposed to be a day game. And it's getaway day. We got to go to El Paso after the game, 1,200 miles away, clear across the state of Texas and clear across Arkansas. And we finally play the game. We get on the bus after midnight. And we have a day off for the travel, and I just remember we're going through the night, and I wake up. We had beer on the bus, and everybody got, I guess, hammered. And I woke up...

DAVIES: And you're sleeping...

HERNANDEZ: ...And...

DAVIES: ...In luggage racks, right?

HERNANDEZ: Luggage racks - we took turns because we're in a Greyhound bus. Those old Greyhound buses - no leg room. So we took shifts. Luggage racks above on each side the - of above the seats where we had to climb up and lay on our backs and cross our arms like Dracula. And the roof of the bus would be like inches from our bodies. And we get around an hour where we can stretch our legs and sleep. Wake up in the morning, and I remember waking up, and it was sunrise, and I just felt horrible. And within 30 seconds, a roadside sign comes by, and it says, El Paso, 750 miles, and I went, oh, my God (laughter). So I swore if I ever got sent down and had to play another year in the Texas League, I'd quit.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: You know, this book is not about the two World Series you played in - I mean, some amazing exploits you had with the Cardinals and the Mets. It's - a lot of it's about your struggles coming up. Why did you focus on this in the book?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I wanted the book to be my struggles, and they're there. I mean, I struggled my first two years in the minor leagues in A ball and Double-A. I struggled mightily in the big leagues. I was up when I was 20 years of age, now 2 1/2 years removed from high school. And I struggled for those first three years in the major leagues. So it was no yellow brick road, and I just - it's a story of perseverance, a dream of a young boy growing up in Northern California to be the next Mickey Mantle - a star major league player. And I stayed with it, and I didn't quit.

DAVIES: You know. I recently read in the new book about Tiger Woods that his dad put him in a high chair in his garage when he was a - like. An infant and had him watch his dad taking golf swings? And then he had him swinging a golf club when he was a toddler. And I read in your book that your dad had a - kind of a training rig set up in your garage for your brother and you. Tell us about that and what it meant to you.

HERNANDEZ: Well. Our garage in Pacifica, Calif., didn't have sheet rock on the ceiling. And it was just all the two-by-fours and the crossbars and the beams. So - and we did have a rafter going across - was a loft, kind of, like, almost like an open attic. And dad set up on the middle of the garage. We were - my brother and I were both left-hand hitters, so he set it up, more on the right side of the garage if you're looking at the door, so we can take a full swing. A rope tied around one of the two-by-fours and extended the rope down and then put two white, cotton athletic socks with a tennis ball in it and then tied it to the rope. And the rope, at full extension, would be a knee-high strike.

We started doing this when we were like 6, 7 years old, I mean, my brother and I. And then if you wanted to get it up higher to a belt-high strike, you just throw the - you just threw the rope over the two-by-four. If you wanted a high pitch, keep throwing it over - maybe two, three, four times, and it was a high pitch. And the ball would swing like a pendulum, and it would - the arc of the ball going up after we stroked it - would hit the underside of the loft, which was, like, one-by-fours. So I marked them, you know - single, out, double, flyball. And I would swing for hours and play games with that - and my dad, in the beginning, would watch us swing, make sure we were swinging properly.

And eventually, he felt that we had it down pretty good. You know, he didn't have to watch. I remember him saying, when I was older, that he'd come home from work. He was a fireman in San Francisco for 30 years. And he'd hear that pounding of the tennis ball against the rafters. And it - you know, it would give him a headache sometimes, and - but it made him laugh because I was there taking - you know, I was - probably 500 to 1000 swings a day. I just absolutely loved it.

DAVIES: Right. And, you know, you and your brother weren't just slapping on it because your dad knew something about the game. He would look at your mechanics. Tell us a bit about him. How did he know so much about baseball?

HERNANDEZ: Well, my dad was a minor-league player. And he was originally drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers before World War II. He got hit in the head his first year. And his eyes progress - no helmets those days - eyes progressively got worse, and he eventually played for Cleveland and Oklahoma City and then was traded to the Cardinals and played under Johnny Keane in Houston, where he met my mother. And they got married after the season. He was a very good hitter and a very fine fielding first baseman. And his career was shortened, and so he put it all - after the war - he served four years in the service in the Navy at Pearl Harbor on a ship repair unit, played on the U.S. Navy team, which played the U.S. Army team and the Army Air Corps. Musial - Stan Musial and 45 (ph) played with my father. Ted Williams was playing on the teams - the Marine team. So there was all these ex - these - these major leaguers playing - this league were entertaining the troops, basically.

DAVIES: So it's clear you had talent, but it was all of that practice from somebody who knew what he was doing that, no doubt, honed your skills. You were drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals organization and were a prized prospect. Now, a lot was expected of you. And it took years for you, as you write in the book, to really get your stride as a hitter. And partly, that was, you know, adjusting mechanics and learning pitches, but a lot of it was emotional. How did your head get in the way?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I always - I describe my fragility - my emotional fragility. I mean, you're a high - you come out of high school. You're a star in your little area you grew up in. I grew up with the baby boomers, and there's lots of kids to play ball with. And all of a sudden, my first spring training, there's 700 kids in camp, and there's only eight teams. And, now, I know I'm going to make the team. I got a bonus - signing bonus of $30,000 which was unheard of for a 42nd round pick. But it just - the big adjustment is you play two games a week in summer league and back in those days in high school. Now you're playing - I believe it was a 128-game schedule in the minor league. Something like that. And you're playing every day. And you're not going to hit .500 like you did in high school. I hit .256 in A ball. I hit .260 in Double-A the next year. And, you know, it was tough. It was depressing. And then you go in slumps and your first experience of slumps.

And it's all a learning process. And you're a hotheaded, 18-year-old kid. And you don't know how to handle. You throw helmets. You throw bats. You kick dirt. And, you know, you've got coaches trying to tell you to calm down. And you've got to learn to play this game on an even keel. And it's all part of the process. That's what the minor leagues are about. But, you know, it takes a long time. And everybody's different. It took me a lot longer.

DAVIES: Tell us the story of the first time you met guys razzing you in the stands, some college kids in a minor league game.

HERNANDEZ: (Laughter) I was 18 my first year in ball, making $500 a month and only getting paid during the season. And, you know, you went home, and you didn't get paid. And we're - we played a doubleheader, a very windy game in St. Petersburg, Fla., in the Florida State League. And it was a pop-up. And I dropped it. And, you know, to me, I drop a pop up. I was just - it was - and there were some college kids that had come down to watch the game. And they were sitting over on the first base side. And I guess they read that I was the big prospect. And they just started riding me incessantly. And as a result, I got tighter and tighter. And I got madder and madder. And I didn't acknowledge them because that's asking for trouble. I had enough sense to realize that. But they were relentless.

And then it turned out that another play later in the second game, I just made another botch on an easy throw. It was obviously - they got under my skin. And when the game was over - Roy Majtyka was my manager (laughter). And it's able. I'm 18. He calls me in the office. And obviously, he's going to tell me how you can't let - you know, he's going to give me the lessons. And I just start crying. And he just had to - Roy was a cigarette smoking - he had a cigarette in his hand and beer in his other hand. And he just - I remember him going, oh, jeez.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

HERNANDEZ: And there I was completely after, you know, all that pent-up emotion inside. And it just came out in tears.

DAVIES: I think you write at one point that one of your coaches thought you needed to be away from your dad a little bit. I mean, he was such an...

HERNANDEZ: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Important influence in your life. Was he - I don't know - a challenge, a burden? Was it difficult with him, too?

HERNANDEZ: Well, when the Cardinals were scouting me, Dad negotiated my contract. They got a sense of the strength of the power of my father. Bob Kennedy - there was A ball team in Modesto, in the California State League. There was three A ball teams - Cedar Rapids, St. Pete in the Florida State League and California State League. Bob Kennedy kept me out of the California State League, which he felt I was ready to play in because that was the top A ball league. And he put me in the middling Florida State League, which was a tough league. And he told me years later he wanted to kind of cut the apron strings from my father. So there you go - Bob Kennedy being a real influence on my career.

DAVIES: What - do you think you needed to cut the strings from your father a bit?

HERNANDEZ: Yes, no question. It was the right thing to do because dad - my brother played in the California State League. And Dad came to all his games just whenever he could. And that would've drove me crazy. Gary had a different relationship with my father than I did with him. And, yes, it was the right thing to do to get me away from him and get me to stand up on my own two feet.

DAVIES: Was he hypercritical? You felt like you just couldn't please him?

HERNANDEZ: Well, he coached us all through little league. And he was just wonderful. And the parents and the kids were all - benefited from his instruction. He was really terrific with the kids. But once I got into high school, he was so petrified that a coach would ruin me. And it was - in other words, he lost control. And that's when things started to get a little dicey between me and him. He would always watch whenever he can.

He was a fireman. He worked 24 hours, off 48. He had two days off. So he would be at every practice in high school, watching. And it was like, you know, "The Central Scrutinizer," you know, from Frank Zappa's "Joe's Garage" album. And it was just, like, forever watching. And I would feel that it was, like, a shroud over me. And I would come home on pins and needles. I didn't know if I would, you know, get laid into, or he would smile and praise me. It was kind of a tough situation.

DAVIES: And that continued into your major league career, too, right?

HERNANDEZ: Yes, it did.

DAVIES: Well, I'm sure he was a great guy. And he died in 1982, right?

HERNANDEZ: He did. Ironically, one year after my retirement. So it was too bad he couldn't have lived longer.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Keith Hernandez. His new memoir is called "I'm Keith Hernandez." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE KINKS SONG, “THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY”)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Keith Hernandez. He spent 17 years in the big leagues, had World Series teams with the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets. He has a new memoir called "I'm Keith Hernandez."

I want to talk about playing first base. First base is a natural place for collisions, right? I mean, when there's a ground ball, you're there to catch a throw from the infield. And hopefully, it's on target. But it might be into the path of the runner, who may not see it...

HERNANDEZ: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Because the runner's busting it down the line, not necessarily looking at the throw. When you could see that was going to happen, the ball was going to be into the path of the runner, did you have techniques for either warning the runner or just trying to avoid getting hurt or hurting the runner?

HERNANDEZ: Well, number one, the runner can't run inside the baseline. He's got to be on the chalk. So a throw into him, or I got to stretch towards home plate, I feel pretty confident that I'm not going to get hit. It's up to me to make sure that I stride in fair territory towards the ball. I'd stretch. Excuse me. And the only time I was ever scared - when I was older in my last year in Cleveland, Oakland Raider running back that played for Kansas City, All-American Bo Jackson, hit a ground ball to shortstop, and the throw was down the line into him. And I heard him running like - he was...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

HERNANDEZ: ...Like a herd of buffalo. I'm not exaggerating. I'd never had that experience before, and I've played against some big guys. He was running so fast, and he was such a big, strong guy that when I - I remember I cringed when I caught the ball, just in hopes that he wouldn't clip me on my left shoulder. And he missed me, thank goodness. I made sure I stretched out the line.

But that's the only time ever in my career. If the throw is too far up the line, you make a judgment. First base was a part of me, and that's also a extension of knowing where the runner is. I have good peripheral vision. I have good sense of where the runner is. Can I come off the bag? Instead of stretching, can I just come off the bag and get the ball and make the tag instead of staying on the bag? I was able to do that. It was just all second nature to me. The easy part of the game for me was fielding. If hitting could have been as easy as fielding, I would have hit .400.

DAVIES: (Laughter) The other thing about playing first base - it's the one place where there are a lot of - there's time to converse with an opposing player. Player - the base runner gets on. And, you know, I mean, the pitcher and catcher - I mean, the hitter and catcher are near each other, but they're kind of busy. The catcher's getting the signs. When you're with a runner at first, you're often waiting for the pitcher to get ready, and you can see there's chatter. Is it friendly? Were there guys who'd try and use that to get in your head? Or would you try to get in other players' heads?

HERNANDEZ: I was a chatterbox. And for one reason, I would ask the hitters how they felt at the plate. And if a hitter would - there was - it was just the beginning when - in the old days, you would never talk to the opposing player during a game, before a game and BP. There was no - it was the enemy. And that was starting to change in my era. It started to change in the '60s. And in the '70s, it even got - it advanced further.

But I'd always ask, you know - guy came to the first base - how do you feel at the plate? And if they start - oh, you know, I don't feel so good, da-da-da-da-da. Oh, man, I feel great. Well, I'm in a hot streak. You know, well, I would relay that information.

DAVIES: To your pitcher.

HERNANDEZ: Rick - yes, and actually to the pitching staff and - or the pitching coach. Rick Monday had a funny story. Rick Monday's a very dear friend. He now does radio for the Dodgers. He goes, oh, we're flying into St. Louis. Hernandez is on first base. We'd better all hit doubles...

(LAUGHTER)

HERNANDEZ: ...So they wouldn't have talk to me (laughter).

DAVIES: Keith Hernandez's new memoir is called "I'm Keith Hernandez." After a break, he'll tell us what he doesn't like about the game today and about what it was like on the set of "Seinfeld." Also, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album from trumpeter Adam O'Farrill. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "MESSIN' WITH THE KID")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Keith Hernandez, the five-time All-Star and 11-time Gold Glove first baseman who's now a broadcaster serving as color analyst for New York Mets games. He has a new memoir about his early struggles learning baseball. It's called "I'm Keith Hernandez."

Well, when I told people I was going to be interviewing Keith Hernandez, everybody says, you've got to ask him about "Seinfeld."

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: You were a story on "Seinfeld" for an episode. How did that happen?

HERNANDEZ: I was a year and a half, I believe, into retirement and just sitting around, wondering what the heck I'm going to do with the second half of my life in New York City. And my final - last agent was Scott Boras. And I got a call from Scott, which I hadn't talked to anymore. I had - I'm not playing ball. He's not negotiating any contracts for me. And he goes, there's this sitcom that they want you to come out and do an episode in LA - just got a call. And I go, well, what's the name of the episode? And it was "Seinfeld."

Now, I didn't - we baseball players, we play night games. Primetime's - we're in the middle of a game in primetime. I don't watch primetime TV even to this day, and I had no idea what "Seinfeld" was. I think it was two years into the show. It hadn't really taken off. And I said, well, OK. I go, how much are they - would they pay me? And he goes, well, they're going to pay you $15,000. They'll fly you out first-class and back. You're there for a week in LA. They're going to put you up at a real nice hotel. And I think you're just going to have minimal lines, just, you know, a little spot. And I said OK. I'll do it.

Well, that was decided on Friday. I was supposed to be in LA for 7 a.m. call on Monday to start rehearsal for that episode, which would run all week, the rehearsals. And they FedExed Saturday night delivery the script. And I get the script. And I'm going through the script. And I'm realizing that I am not a bit player. I am a guest star.

And the story - the episode revolves around me. And I've got a ton of lines. And actually, the one scene in it - where I - it's almost like a soliloquy. I mean, it's like - it was like two and a half pages of dialogue. And I'm, like, petrified.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

HERNANDEZ: I had no desire to act. I had no training to act. And all of a sudden, I was just thrust into this, thrown into the water - and see if I can sink or swim. And I was petrified. So that's how it happened.

DAVIES: What were they like working with - you know, Seinfeld and Jason Alexander and the others?

HERNANDEZ: Well, the thing was Jerry was a - is a Brooklynite and a Met fan. And I was his favorite player. So he conceived this show. Larry David was - he's a Yankee fan. So they got this show - they conceived the show. It was all Jerry's idea. And when I got there, I was introduced to everybody. They were all wonderful. Jerry was very shy in the beginning. And the other principal actors...

DAVIES: Like, you're the celebrity, right?

HERNANDEZ: Yes. And the other principal actors were just laughing, coming up to me and going, Jerry's never like this. I can't believe it. He's, like, star-struck. I'm going (laughter) - so we go through rehearsal. And Michael Richards didn't know anything about baseball and was very inquisitive, asked me questions about baseball, my profession. He was very curious about it. Julia was, I believe, three months pregnant with her first child. And she was lovely. Jason was a little bit - I almost felt like he said, well, look at this guy. I worked my butt off and went through acting school. And I - it took me a long time to get a break. And look at this guy. He's got a guest star role. That was kind of - that was my perception.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

HERNANDEZ: He wasn't nasty. But he was just kind of a little standoffish. And he didn't really - he shook my hand after we did - Friday night we did a final - we did a run through for the NBC executives, the censors. And I did not mess up the entire show. It was an hour show. And when it was over, he came up to me with a big smile and shook my hand and said, nice going. And I think I guess I passed the test. But it was a great experience. The creative process was wonderful. That's what I took out of it - how in the beginning, they had the script, they had three other writers. You had Larry David. You had Jerry. And you sat at a rectangular table. Everybody had a script. And all - everybody had an input. Let's try this. Let's try that. And then Larry David would obviously have the ultimate say whether they would use it or not. But the creative process as the week went on to make the show better I thought was just fascinating.

DAVIES: When I watched it again, I realized there are actually three distinct plotlines. There's...

HERNANDEZ: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Jerry meets you. And he wants you to call him and is disappointed when you don't. There's this bromance. And then there's this thing about how you had allegedly spit on Kramer...

HERNANDEZ: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...And Newman before. And there's, like, a...

HERNANDEZ: Yeah.

DAVIES: It's like a Zapruder Kennedy assassination film...

HERNANDEZ: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Kind of mock-up. And then the other one is you date Elaine. And I thought we would...

HERNANDEZ: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Just hear the scene where you've gone out, and you're saying good night. And the question is, are you going to kiss her? And we hear kind of the thought bubbles for each character as you are - as you're talking. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine) Thanks for a nice evening. This was really fun.

HERNANDEZ: (As himself) Yeah, it was. Gosh, should I kiss her good night?

(LAUGHTER)

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine) Is he going to try and kiss me? I love Cajun cooking.

HERNANDEZ: (As himself) Really? You know, my mom's one-quarter Cajun.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine) My father's half-drunk.

(LAUGHTER)

HERNANDEZ: (As himself) Maybe they should get together. Go ahead. Kiss her. I'm a baseball player, damn it.

(LAUGHTER)

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine) What's he waiting for? I though he was a cool guy.

HERNANDEZ: (As himself) Come on. I won the MVP in '79. I can do whatever I want to.

(LAUGHTER)

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine) This is getting awkward.

HERNANDEZ: (As himself) Well, good night.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine) Good night. Who does this guy think he is?

HERNANDEZ: (As himself) I'm Keith Hernandez.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: And that's the name of his book - "I'm Keith Hernandez." Our guest...

HERNANDEZ: You're embarrassing me.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Yeah. There's a nice, long kiss at the end. And you say, I'm Keith Hernandez. You know, you've also developed a huge social media following. This is interesting because, you know, you're - old ballplayers are not known for taking to things like this. And I thought we'd listen to just a minute of a Twitter video that you put out.

HERNANDEZ: (Laughter) Sure.

DAVIES: We see you with your cat Hadji on your left shoulder. And you've just gotten up, and you're walking out to get a paper. Let's listen to just a little bit of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

HERNANDEZ: All right. Hadji and I are going to go get the paper. Let's go, Hadj. I look like I've been in a train wreck. But that's OK. Hadj, let's go. You like this cool weather. Look at you. Yeah, mother nature. There you go. Look at that, Hadj. Yeah, let's go get the papers.

DAVIES: And it's about as exciting as it sounds like.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: So that video has 266,000 views. And a lot of people say Hadji, your cat, is the star. Just tell us a little bit about Hadji and what kind of relationship you have with him, particularly given that you have to be on the road so much.

HERNANDEZ: Well, number one, I'm not married. So I can't have a dog. It would be very unfair to the dog. In my second marriage - I got married in '06, was married around 6 years, together with her around 9 years. She had two cats. And we decided to get a third cat. And he's a bengal, which is - he's highbred. It cost a pretty penny. He's been with me 15 years. When we got divorced, he's the - I couldn't - we had a big dog, too. I couldn't have the big dog. And so Hadji came with me. He was my favorite. And he's been with me for 15 years. We're buddies. I grew up with dogs and cats in Northern California in a very agrarian surroundings on a beach town - Linda Mar Beach, Calif. - Pacifica. So he's been my buddy. And he's very demanding. He's almost like a dog. I mean, he's just a part of me. And I love him dearly. I mean, I'm a cat lover.

DAVIES: And he's a star on a lot of these videos, isn't he?

HERNANDEZ: He is. And it's demanding. My followers want me to do videos of him. When the Mets go bad, it's just hilarious. It's just, oh, I am so depressed. They've lost three in a row. And the same old Mets. Can you just get me through this little dry spell? Will you send me a video of Hadji?

(LAUGHTER)

HERNANDEZ: So I find myself doing videos with Hadji. And he will just...

DAVIES: He's a therapy cat for Mets fans.

HERNANDEZ: He eats it up. He - exactly. I didn't think of it that way. You got a point.

(LAUGHTER)

HERNANDEZ: Keith Hernandez's new memoir is called "I'm Keith Hernandez." We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI'S "AIN'T THAT A SHAME")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with former big league ball player Keith Hernandez. He spent 17 years in the Major Leagues, mostly with the Cardinals and Mets, on two World Series teams. He's now a color analyst for New York Mets broadcasts. He has a new memoir called "I'm Keith Hernandez."

Game has changed since you played. I mean, we now have - they count visits to the mound. There are challenges. There are instant replays. What do you think of the game today?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I really feel that there - the game is going through radical changes. I don't - all the analytics. I'm kind of - when I finished this book, I wish it had been nine months later because I'm kind of getting a grasp of analytics. And I'm kind of - I'll never 100 percent go with them. But I've talked to many former players, teammates that are in front offices and say, hey, you can really be surprised what you can wean from analytics. It's so precise, so in-depth. OK, fine. I'm coming around on that.

But still, statistics are sterile. I miss the complete game, the pitcher going nine innings. And, you know, I can't blame the pitchers today. It's what - how they're brought up. You know, five innings, and they're gone - 100 pitches, they're gone. I can't sink my teeth into it. I can't wrap my arms around that. I think it lowers the bar. And it's all about excellence, striving to be the best that you can be. I don't want someone to come in and finish that game for me. I want to finish the game. Or if it's an inning, and you're in trouble, and they take him out which they do because it's a pitch count, let him finish the inning.

So I don't want to go on and on and on. But that's the way the game is. And that's the way it's going to be. And I've come to - I'm at peace with it. So I'm not going to get all riled about it. And it's just the way it is. And I do miss how the game was played before - you know, a couple decades before.

DAVIES: Well, I don't mind you getting riled at all. What about the pace of play?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I think the big culprits are the pitchers. And I see so many 0-2 counts where they've got the hitter really backed up against the wall. I'm in trouble when I'm 0-2. And they don't know how to pitch and put a - blow the hitter away. It goes inevitably to 3-2. That adds to pitch count. That adds to - OK, now you're not going to go seven innings. Now you're going to go six, maybe 5 2/3. And here comes the bullpens. And a lot of the bullpens stink - and the guys that come in and don't throw strikes. I've talked to scouts. They look at the guy get the ball the furthest - 'cause the home run's in - and the pitcher that can throw the hardest. It's no longer pitch to contact.

Warren Spahn wasn't a hard thrower. The greatest left-hander of all time. Warren Spahn had a screw ball. Watching Warren Spahn pitch was like watching Rembrandt paint a masterpiece. On the corners, low, a little extra here, a little off there, screwball here, up-and-in fastball there. These hard throwers - they don't have the command of their breaking ball. And major league hitters can hit fastballs. And that makes for long counts and makes for long games. And now you've got the analytics. And I'm up there going absolutely out of my mind.

DAVIES: A couple other things.

HERNANDEZ: I don't want to get riled (laughter).

DAVIES: No, it's fun. It's fun. When you talk to players - you know, I did the math. A player who 27 today was probably not born or barely born when your career ended. Do they know you? Do they respect your accomplishments? Does it make a difference when you speak?

HERNANDEZ: I - you know what? I'm a - I've had some players on the Mets coming up - young kids - that you go up and say hello to them. And they looked at my press pass to see who I was. And I'm going, oh, really? You've got Google. You can just go to - put Hernandez. And I'll come up, and you can know everything you want to know about me on your fingertips in seconds. And yet I, as a kid growing up, knew about Ty Cobb. I knew about Ralph Kiner, who I worked with. I knew about Ted Williams. I knew all the history of the game. And it just - it's just seems a paradox to me that there's no sense of history in the game anymore with the younger generation of players. And I don't want to knock them. They're bigger and stronger. And, you know, they play every day. That's what I watch. They play hard. And - but I find it interesting that they just don't have any - there's no merit or value to the history of the game.

DAVIES: I'm not enough of a baseball geek to really know what Hall of Fame numbers look like. But, I mean, you've won 11 straight Gold Gloves. You were a career .296 hitter with 162 home runs. You had a batting title, an MVP award, two World Series rings. Why aren't you in the Hall of Fame?

HERNANDEZ: Well, my father - I was a really, really good athlete. And I used to be able to run pretty good - not fast but above average. I stole 19 or 18 - 19 bases in 1982. Home runs mean a lot. I played in St. Louis. It was 386 in the gaps. It was 330 far down the line.

DAVIES: Big park.

HERNANDEZ: It was a huge park.

DAVIES: Yeah.

HERNANDEZ: And it was sunken and underground on street level. And the only open-air part of the ballpark was from left center to right center, and it would blow in. And when it got hot in the summer, you had to hit line drives. And we called it Death Valley. And I was a line-drive hitter anyway.

So the 162 home runs, whatever it is, you know, if I had played at Wrigley Field, or if I had played at Veterans Stadium or Three Rivers Stadium, I probably would have hit over two home - 200 home runs. And that would have helped, which means more RBI. I drove in over 1,000 runs. So I lost some time playing with some - two strikes and two lockouts. You know, those are games that went across the board, but I wasn't able to play.

DAVIES: Does it bother you that you're not in the Hall?

HERNANDEZ: No, I don't want - I'll tell you what. When it's all said and done, and I'm long gone, who's going to remember? And, you know, I'm not going to worry about it. What bothers me the most, Dave, is my 300 lifetime batting average. I'm at 296.

And ironically, my childhood idol, born on the same birthday as him, Mickey Mantle, October 20 - when I got my first baseball card and I saw that, he was my idol - I always had a seven on my back - that is Mickey's pet peeve. I read in his biography that he lost because of injury - he stayed around too long - he lost his 300 lifetime batting average. And ironically, I'm in the same boat. I'm a 300-hitter. I'm not a 296 hitter.

DAVIES: Keith Hernandez, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

HERNANDEZ: I can't thank you enough for having me.

DAVIES: Keith Hernandez played 17 seasons in the big leagues and is now a color analyst for New York Mets games. His new memoir is called "I'm Keith Hernandez." Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album from trumpeter Adam O'Farrill. This is FRESH AIR.

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