Over the years, a lot of Mets players have worn mustaches. Mike Piazza wore the goatee he was known for with the Dodgers for a while when he was a Met. John Franco represented the thick, upper lip mustache well. More contemporarily, Matt Harvey is rocking a ‘stache, and Dale Thayer is retro. But, in the nearly fifty-year history of the Mets, there is only one mustache that is iconic, so iconic that it was voted Top Sports Mustache by the American Mustache Institute in 2007. That mustache belongs to one Keith Hernandez.
Hernandez is among the most iconic Mets players of the 1980s. Surprisingly enough to many, he didn't even want to become a Met. When Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog called Keith to his office in the middle of the 1983 season to inform him that he had been traded to the Mets for pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey, Keith was in shock. "Who?", he asked, not referring to Nick Evans, and promptly called his agent to find out if he could simply retire, and live off of his deferred income. He couldn't and begrudgingly left St. Louis for New York. Keith often dogged it, and he eventually saw his .319/.389/.470 batting line in late June drop to a .277/.362/.418 in mid August. During a series in against the Giants in San Fransisco, his hometown, Keith's older brother, best friend, and confidant verbally accosted and challenged him. After seeing Keith not really even try during batting practice, Gary followed Keith to the clubhouse and confronted him. "What was that out there?" he asked. "Who do you think you are? [Third-base coach Bobby Valentine] was out there throwing batting practice and you were wasting his time! Do you think you're better than the guys here? You're not! You've embarrassed yourself and you've embarrassed me." From that point on, Keith played ball, ending the season with a more respectable, Keith Hernandez-ian .297/.396/.433 batting line. Gary also convinced Keith to sign a five-year, $8.4 million contract with the Mets, and the rest is history. Keith, more or less, became the Mets.
While Keith will always be remember as a Met by us, and by most baseball fans, it is important to not forget his time with St. Louis, the team that he came up with. It was in St. Louis that Hernandez made his bones, and became one of the premium first basemen in the MLB at the time. As a 21-year-old in AAA-Tulsa, the Cardinals' Minor League affiliate, Keith hit .330/.440/.531, on the back of his 1974 season where he hit .351/.425/.555. The Cardinals eventually traded their first baseman, Joe Torre, to make room for Hernandez, and Keith became the Cardinals' full-time first baseman in 1976. Keith struggled with the bat slightly, hitting only .277/.368/.425 in his first three years in the big leagues, but retained the defensive prowess that he exhibited in the Minor Leagues, and won his first Gold Glove Award in 1978, ending Steve Garvey's streak of four consecutive Gold Gloves. For Keith, this would be the first of many. In 1979, Keith learned how to hit MLB pitchers, and hit .344/.417/.513 on the season. In addition to being an All-Star, and winning his second consecutive Gold Glove, Keith would win the National League MVP Award, along with Willie Stargell. He would go on to win three more Gold Glove Awards in a row with the Cardinals, before being traded to New York. All in all, he hit .299/.385/.448 in the ten years he spent in St. Louis.
Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog and Keith did not get along, and often butt heads. Whitey never said outright that he believed that Keith was a drug addict, and that his drug problems were a cause for concern, and instead said vaguely that he was a clubhouse cancer. It was for this reason that Keith would be traded to the Mets, for two marginal pitchers. During the Pittsburgh Drug Trials in 1985, it came to public record that Keith Hernandez did indeed use cocaine fairly recreationally. In February of 1986, Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended Keith for a season, but allowed him to play on the condition that he donated 10% of his salary to anti-drug related programs, performed 100 hours of anti-drug community service, and submitted to random drug testing for the rest of his career. Thankfully, Keith made a recovery, kicking his cocaine habit in 1983, ironically around the same time he was traded because of his drug habit. Keith stopped liking the effects it had on his body. "You can't turn it off like a light switch," he said. "It has to run its course. You want to go to sleep and you can't. I didn't like the high anymore. I'm glad for that. It made it easier to get off. There is nothing good about it. I'm really proud I got off the stuff myself. I didn't go into rehab."
As a Met, Keith became, to quote Reggie Jackson, the ‘straw that stirred the drink'. As we all know, the Mets were not a very good team in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but were on their way to become the juggernaut of a team it was in the mid and late 1980s. Ron Darling was traded for. Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were in the farm system and ready to make an impact on the MLB team. In 1985, Gary Carter would be traded for, and suddenly the Mets found themselves at or near the top of the NL East. In 1984, Keith hit .311/.409/.449, and placed second for the National League Most Valuable Player Award, being edged out by Cubs second-baseman Ryne Sandberg. In 1985, Keith had another MVP-type season (though, ironically, he did not make the All-Star Game), hitting .309/.384/.430, and winning another Gold Glove. Unfortunately, the Mets narrowly missed the playoffs, despite going 98-64 for the season. To make matters worse, it was the Cardinals- embroiled in a bitter, heated, and personal (especially for Keith) rivalry with New York- who edged them out, winning the NL East by three games. To Keith, and to the Mets, who could smell their destiny, that would not do.
The next season was 1986, and we all know what happened that year. Keith did his part, hitting .310/.413/.446 on the season, causing him to place 4th in National League Most Valuable Player voting. He notched another Gold Glove, his 9th in a row, and was an All-Star. Though he did his part with the glove, Keith didn't bat particularly well during the playoffs, hitting .269/.345/.385 with 3 RBI in the NLCS against the Houston Astros, and .231/.344/.231 with 4 RBI in the World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Keith made the second out in Game Six of the World Series, and retired to the clubhouse, angered and saddened about the Mets' imminent defeat, consoling himself with a beer. Ever the superstitious ballplayer, Keith watched what transpired on the clubhouse TV and did not move, not wanting to jinx anything. So, thank you Keith, for winning us the World Series.
In 1987, the 33-year-old Hernandez was named Captain of the New York Mets. His combination of offensive and defensive prowess, coupled with his knowledge of the game, veteran presence, and media go-to man earned him the ‘C' on his uniform. Unfortunately, 1987 would signal the beginning of the end of Keith's playing career, even though he still was elected to the All-Star Game, his 5th and final appearance. For the first time since 1983, he would end the season with a batting average below .300, and would only be rated four TotalZone Runs Above Average, the lowest in his career since becoming a full-time player. He would still win a Gold Glove Award, however, the 10th of his career. His 1988 season would be even worse. Being limited to only 95 games because of back, knee, and hamstring problems, Keith hit .276/.333/.417 and was rated only two TotalZone Runs Above Average. Once more, in deference to his reputation, Keith won the Gold Glove, his record-setting 11th in a row. It would be the last in his storied career, however.
Injuries plagued Keith once more in 1989, and limited him to only 75 games. The 35-year-old first baseman hit .233/.324/.326, and was rated a single TotalZone Run Above Average, both career-worst marks. His contract expired at the end of the 1989 season, and the Mets elected to grant their aging captain free agency, allowing him to ride out into the sunset. He felt he had a little more in the tank, and signed with the Cleveland Indians for the 1990 season. He played 43 games there, hitting .200/.283/.238 and being ranked neutral, zero TotalZone Runs Above Average. After the 1990 season ended, Keith hung up the stirrups, and called it a career. In his seventeen seasons, Hernandez hit .296/.384/.436, and in his seven years with the Mets, he hit .297/.387/.429. The offense was only half of his game, as he was an outstanding fielder, as his eleven Gold Gloves attest to. In his career, TotalZone ranked Keith's defense 119.0 Runs Above Average. He was worth 61.8 WAR for his career, and 28.4 as a Met, averaging 4.1 WAR during those seven years, peaking in 1986, when he was worth 5.9 WAR. In 1997, Keith was deservingly enshrined in the Mets Hall-of-Fame
Since his retirement, Keith has been involved with the organization in various ways, some official and some unofficial. Most famously to non-Met fans, or non-New Yorkers, he played a fictional version of himself on Seinfeld, where he dated Elaine, and was proven innocent of spitting on Kramer and Newman. Along with Walt Frazier, Keith has appeared in a bunch of Just For Men commercials, and, more recently, for Coin Galleries of Oyster Bay. We Mets fans know Keith a little more intimately than those only aware of his television exploits from Seinfeld and those commercials. Since 2006, Keith has been a color commentator and game analyst for most Mets games televised on SNY and WPIX (11). In 2010, he won an Emmy, along with fellow broadcasters Ron Darling and Gary Cohen. During that time, we've been exposed to so many of Keith's idiosyncrasies, from his firm belief that "[women] don't belong in the dugout" to his love for Tootsie-Pops and "Rib-Eye Steaks", to the abject horror he sometimes expresses when Mets players make errors, and bare minimum motions he puts in when at games he doesn't want to be at.
I personally think Keith deserves the special honor of having his number retired in perpetuity, along with Gil Hodges', Casey Stengel's, Tom Seaver's and Jackie Robinson's. Keith played on the team for seven seasons, so he has the long tenure requirement. During those seven years, he hit .297/.387/.429, knocking in 468 RBI, playing excellent defense, and accruing 28.4 WAR. The numbers requirement is there. He was a clubhouse leader, serving as team Captain for three years. The intangibles requirement is there. The only part that is missing, that some consider crucial, is his being a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Though missing this, I believe- and many others- that Keith Hernandez should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and that it is a travesty that he is not, and that in nine years of being on the ballot, less than 6% of BBWAA writers voted for him, ending his eligibility
Hernandez ranks 15th all-time on the WAR leaders among first-basemen with his 61.8 career WAR. This places him ahead of fellow first basemen who were enshrined, such as Jake Beckley, Jim Bottomley, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Chance, George Kelly, George Sisler, and Bill Terry. That makes Hernandez a more valuable first baseman than seven out of twenty-one Hall-of-Fame first-basemen. That's 33%, one-third of them! Hernandez also had a tangible impact on the game, revolutionizing the game was played. Keith often stood in foul territory when taking pickoff throws, to allow him to make the tag to his right easier, something he did quite deftly. Since Hernandez, the rules of baseball have been altered to make it illegal for any fielder other than the catcher to position himself in foul ground.
All in all, based on his career as a player with the Mets, and his presence with the team since his retirement, I think it is safe to say that Keith Hernandez deserves to have his ‘17' retired.