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Hybrid Hernandez hedging his bets in NLCS

By Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 10, 2000


NEW YORK -- When Keith Hernandez was a young star with the Cardinals visiting New York on a road trip, he always took the team bus straight to Shea Stadium, hung in the claustrophobic hotel bar at night, and avoided the imagined perils of the big city.

"New York wasn't one of my favorite places. I never had a great time here," Hernandez was saying Monday. "Stupid me. How dumb was I?"

As it turned out, the former first baseman and Seinfeld guest wasn't dumb at all. Just a bit under-informed. The most famous hyphenated Cardinal-Met in history eventually came to love New York, now his permanent home, while learning the sort of diplomacy that has him hedging on his predictions for the upcoming series.

"The two best teams in the National League are playing," said Hernandez, who will soon get his real estate license to go along with the acting gigs. "I think the Cards are the best, but it's very, very tough to say. I'll just say it's going to seven games."

In this rivalry, Hernandez knows the geography (just west of the Mississippi vs. just west of the No. 7 tracks), the architecture (arch vs. unisphere), the baseball heartbeat of both places. He understands the more patient, forgiving St. Louis fans and the more demanding, suffocating New Yorkers.

His career path went in the right direction, from Midwest to Mid-Apple, or else Hernandez might not have endured close to 17 seasons, driving in 1,071 runs with a lifetime batting average of .296.

Shortly after he came up from the minors in St. Louis, the Cards traded away Joe Torre after the 1974 season to the Mets to make space at first for Hernandez. So there was a great deal of self-imposed pressure on him, and he did not immediately fare well.

Hernandez batted just .250 in 64 games in 1975 and didn't really break out into All-Star numbers until 1979, when he led the league with a .344 average.

"I came up highly touted, and struggled my rookie year," Hernandez said. "I might not have survived that in New York. The fans in St. Louis support their team, they stick by 'em longer. The New York fans demand results and are less inclined to hang in there early.

"On the other hand, I've been in St. Louis when we didn't draw flies."

By the time Hernandez was traded by Whitey Herzog to the Mets on June 15, 1983, for reliever Neil Allen and starter Rick Ownbey, he arrived without the worrisome preconceptions.

"The only fear I had was going to a last-place team," he said.

That changed soon enough, and Hernandez became a huge part of the championship season in 1986. The Venezuelan-born player, nicknamed "Mex" by map-challenged teammates, had the looks, the quotes and the charisma to captivate the city. He was full of himself, in a self-confident, New York kind of way.

In his Seinfeld cameo stint, Elaine dated Hernandez and wondered, "Who does he think he is?" while Hernandez was thinking, "I'm Keith Hernandez." In New York during the '80s, and then the early '90s, that was more than enough.

Asked now if he considers himself a Cardinal or Met, Hernandez takes a moment before responding.

"I have nothing but fond memories of both places," he said. "I have lots of friends in St. Louis. But I think I'm a Met. Yeah."

Hernandez rarely watches baseball closely anymore, he said. He will be watching this series. He thinks St. Louis is better and that, "you cannot underestimate the value of playing Game 1 and Game 7 at home." But he likes the pitching matchups for the Mets.

"I like Leiter and Hampton vs. their lefty hitters, and I like the lefties out of the Met bullpen," he said.

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