NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 23: 1B KEITH HERNANDEZ
Baseball fans in St. Louis and Chicago have reveled for more than a century in the rivalry between their respective National League teams.
But the mostly friendly feuding never rose to the level of all-out vendetta that brewed between Cardinals and New York Mets in the 1980s.
The Mets challenged St. Louis’ hold on the National League East, pushing the Cardinals into the final week of their pennant-winning run of 1985. Then, after St. Louis was robbed of its second championship in four years by an umpire’s blown call, the Mets won the 1986 World Series on a dribbler that skipped through the wickets of Boston’s Bill Buckner.
And their players were so easy to dislike — from Gary Carter’s ego to Ron Darling’s quaffed mullet — that even the kindest of St. Louis citizens referred to them as “pond scum.” Such vitriol extended even to their first baseman, Keith Hernandez, who had been one of their favorites during his 10 seasons with the Cardinals.
The attitude toward Hernandez began to sour two years earlier, not long after after he was presented his championship ring from 1982.
When Whitey Herzog took over as both the Redbirds’ manager and general manager, his initial plan involved a lineup shuffle that would make Hernandez his left fielder. The idea was to find a better defensive catcher to replace Ted Simmons and slide Simmons’ superior bat to first base. The plot was scuttled when the popular switch-hitting backstop, who wound up being traded to Milwaukee, expressed the reasonable concern that his defense would pale in comparison to Hernandez, who won six Gold Gloves at the position.
Herzog soon after began noticing a pattern of lazy habits in Hernandez, like not running out ground balls or taking the extra base, walking on and off the field, and disappearing into the clubhouse to smoke and do crossword puzzles. It all became public in June of 1983 when the defending champions dispatched the 29-year-old former National League MVP to the Mets for relief pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey. Hernandez — who Herzog called a clubhouse cancer — was devastated by the trade and contacted his agent for advice on either blocking it or possibly even retiring.
Then in 1985, right in the middle of that heated divisional race between the Cardinals and Mets, it came to light through his own testimony at the Pittsburgh drug trials, that Hernandez had been using “massive amounts” of cocaine with an “insatiable desire for more.” He also testified that “40 percent” of MLB players were using the drug, but that being traded by the Cardinals became an impetus for his sobriety.
The revelations about his drug use have since overshadowed a decade’s worth of success he had wearing the Birds on the Bat.
Hernandez’s roots with the Cardinals ran deeper than most of the soured fans realized. His father, John Hernandez, was a minor leaguer and U.S. sailor stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1945. According to sports columnist George Vecsey and his book “Stan Musial: An American Life,” the senior Hernandez spent his mornings doing repair work aboard the USS Yorktown and USS Lexington and his afternoons playing baseball in an eight-team Navy baseball league. Musial was a teammate and one of his best friends from the service.
After the war, John Hernandez would take his young son to see the Giants whenever the Cardinals visited San Francisco. The two would visit with Musial, Ken Boyer and other St. Louis players. None of them could have had the inking then that that young Keith would be a Cardinals’ draft pick straight out of high school in 1971.
Four years later, St. Louis traded Joe Torre to make room for Hernandez as the starting first baseman.
Even as the team struggled, Hernandez began to prove himself a certifiable bargain as his draft class’ 776th overall pick. By 1979, “Mex” was an NL batting champion at .344/.417/.513 with a 105 RBIs on just 11 home runs as well as a league-leading 48 doubles and 116 runs scored. He shared Most Valuable Player honors with another first baseman, Willie Stargell, of the World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates.
Hernandez was almost as good in 1980 when he batted. 321./.408/.494 with 99 RBI, 39 doubles and league-best 111 runs.
Moreover, the left-hander revolutionized the way first base was played, by the way he instinctively and aggressively played the bunt. Pete Rose once compared bunting against Hernandez to “charging the lane against (6-foot-10 NBA Hall of Famer) Bill Russell.” His efficiency at receiving pick-off throws and tagging out surprised runners led MLB to create a new rule which mandates all defensive players besides the catcher to be positioned in fair territory before the pitch.
Hernandez’s 11 Gold Gloves remains the record for first basemen and Herzog has often called him as the position’s best ever defensively.
The St. Louis swan song for Hernandez came in ‘82 when he batted .299/.397/.413, including 21 hits in 78 at bats (.334) with two out and runners in scoring position. His steady contact (just 67 hits against 100 walks) was crucial to putting Herzog’s speed game into motion.
An 0-for-15 start to the World Series against the Brewers was broken with three hits in a Game 5 loss the Brewers in Milwaukee. Back home in a do-or-die Game 6, Hernandez drove home four, including two on a fifth-inning homer off Don Sutton in a 13-1 route. In the decisive seventh game, his clutch two-run single in the sixth tied the score and St. Louis went on to a 6-3 championship win.
By the middle of the next season, though, he was in New York on the opposite side of what would soon become a fierce rivalry.
Hernandez has done his part to remain visible in St. Louis by attending reunions and autograph signings. Honored by the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America on the 40th anniversary of his MVP season, he provided video acknowledgment of the Nostalgia Award as he recovered from back surgery. In it, he professed his love for the Cardinals and their fans as well as his regret that his stay didn’t last a little longer.
Yet, 29 years since his retirement, he remains subject to the fans consideration for induction to the Cardinals Hall of Fame.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1974-1983
.299/.385/.448 in St. Louis | 6 Gold Gloves | 2x All-Star | WS ring | MVP’79 | 34.5 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.95