He’s Keith Hernandez . . .

By Christopher John Campion
Keith Hernandez in the broadcasting booth at Citi Field. Mark Levine

“I’m Keith Hernandez”
Keith Hernandez
Little, Brown, $28

Full disclosure: I’m a 52-year-old lifelong Mets fan. I loved Keith Hernandez as a player, love him now in the booth providing color for the Mets broadcasts, and the truth is he could’ve taken a dump on a piece of paper, mailed it in to his editor, and I’d be sitting here telling you what a new and creative way he found to tell his “life in baseball” story. The good news is that he actually did find a way.

I was 17 in 1983 when Hernandez came to the Mets from the St. Louis Cardinals, a team I’d watched win the previous season’s World Series title, of which he was a major contributor (though, for me, Bruce Sutter’s unhittable split-finger fastball is the memory that remains most indelible from that W.S.). He was a former batting champ and a perennial Gold Glover, with a kickass mustache and a winner’s attitude. As a high school kid, I remember watching him and feeling like we had some baseball version of Magnum, P.I. playing first base for us, or, better still, the Marlboro Man, because every once in a while the camera would fall on him smoking a cigarette in the dugout.

He brought a ton of much-needed swagger to a team that was 10 years removed from its previous postseason appearance, and that’s the image that has lasted, but, as you find out in his new memoir, “I’m Keith Hernandez” (the title undoubtedly a nod to his iconic turn on “Seinfeld”), he didn’t just get pried out of a crate full of packing peanuts in Frank Cashen’s office, run out onto the diamond, and play like an All-Star. It was years in the turning, first ramping up through the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league system, then being called up to “the show,” only to underperform and get sent back down, then back up again, where, for the first few seasons, he struggled to find his footing in the bigs. 

The book easily could’ve been called “Becoming Keith Hernandez,” because that’s essentially the story he’s telling.

His baseball odyssey begins in the working-class Bay Area town of Pacifica, Calif., in the 1960s, where his father, a firefighter and former minor league ballplayer who played alongside the likes of Stan (The Man) Musial, teaches young Keith and his older brother, Gary, how to play baseball, passing along his profound love for the game and vehemently preaching solid fundamentals. Seeing something special in young Keith, he drills him over and over on the importance of these principles — instruction that Hernandez would fall back on throughout his lofty baseball career. 

There’s a father-son story, warts and all, that underscores the entire book, but it’s framed in love and gratitude and not an Andre Agassi “the bastard made me hit a thousand tennis balls or I couldn’t have lunch” kinda thing. I really don’t think any of us wanna hear any more domineering-father sob stories from our superstar celebrity athletes. Just doesn’t play with us common folk, ya know? I get it, you’re a human being with feelings and all that, but when we watch you jump into your Lamborghini the only thing we say to ourselves is, “Damn, wish I’d had an a-hole dad like that.” Just sayin’.

Hernandez steers clear of unfurling his autobiography in a chronological way, choosing instead to hop around the timeline, sometimes delving into his present-day trials in broadcasting, other times transporting us back to a Little League game in Pacifica, but he always returns to his main narrative, which is his coming of age in professional baseball in the 1970s. 

Here we get a lot of great stuff, including some bawdy “Bull Durham”-esque yarns from his minor league days in Tulsa, Okla. (including a hilarious account of surviving a tornado with his teammates). Then it’s onto the majors, where, if you’re anything like me, you will delight in some of the names that come to life on the page. Legendary players like Lou Brock (Hernandez’s good friend and mentor), Bob Gibson, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Dave Kingman, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Lefty Carlton, Richie Allen (another guy I remember smoking in the dugout), Frank Robinson, Tom Seaver, and so many more are woven into the fabric and seen through the eyes of a young ballplayer who was called up to hold his own among them. 

You feel his nerves as Hernandez describes his sink-or-swim days competing against these immortals and what he had to do to stay afloat, the adjustments he had to make at the plate, the bouts with self-doubt, the art of reading pitchers — it’s a fantastic baseball geek-out to hear him talk about it. He goes a little hog wild with the footnotes, though, each page laden with them, which sometimes halts the momentum, but the overuse of the device is ultimately forgivable and within them are a lot of interesting contextual factoids and some funny asides as well. 

All in all, Hernandez delivers his book with disarmingly self-deprecating humor and blunt candor — 100-percent authentic to who he is in the broadcast booth. There are no sanctimonious life lessons, motivational speeches, or image-conscious sanding off of the edges to any of the stories he tells, which is really refreshing considering the guy is still very much a public personality and makes his living on TV. In fact, he goes out of his way to state his abhorrence for political correctness (in reference to a dustup a few years ago about something he uttered on air). I think that and the modern use of sabermetrics (the deep analysis of baseball statistics managers use to inform their decisions and evaluate players) might be his two biggest pet peeves in life.

One caveat for Mets fans: If you’re looking for stories about the bad boys of ’86, it ain’t happenin’ — strictly the Cardinal years represented here. So it’s kind of like going to a U2 show where they do all songs from the first few records and stop at “The Joshua Tree.” Cool by me, love that stuff, but hey, howzabout a volume two for the ol’ orange and blue? Achtung!

Christopher John Campion, a singer-songwriter and regular visitor to Amagansett, is the author of “Escape From Bellevue: A Dive Bar Odyssey,” published by Penguin-Gotham. 

Keith Hernandez lives in North Sea and spends winters in Florida. He will speak about his memoir on May 26 at 11 a.m. at Harbor Books in Sag Harbor.

Hector Cruz lightened the mood after Keith Hernandez was sent back to the minor league Tulsa Oilers in June of 1975. Collection of Keith Hernandez
The future Cardinal and Met at Oiler Park in Tulsa, Okla., in 1974. Collection of Keith Hernandez