On November 14, Mead Hall was abuzz with excitement, but not because of a ghost spotting or the promise of free food; students were gathered to hear baseball legend Keith Hernandez discuss his career, share words of wisdom and answer questions from the students gathered.
Athletes representing almost all of Drew’s varsity athletic teams gathered for an intimate chat with Hernandez and former New York Times reporter Ira Berkow. The duo had a long history, as Burkow was a sports columnist for the NYT during the peak of Hernandez’s career. Their easy banter and Berkow’s challenging questions provided for an interesting discussion, during which Hernandez provided insight into his formative years. He told those gathered, “Somewhere out there is the next Bellinger (or Judge)… They are from somewhere; they were once eight years old like you guys, why don’t you make it you?”
Hernandez himself was fortunate to come from a talented family. Both his father and brother played professional baseball up to the AA level. He began practicing daily, even if it was only for 20 minutes, and by age 20 he was brought up to the Major Leagues to play for the St. Louis Cardinals. Although he is now known as one of baseball’s legends, his first season was anything but successful. His performance was so poor; he was sent back down to the Cardinal’s AAA team, the Tulsa Oilers. Although this was not the start of his career that he wanted, he learned from the experience. He said, “Nothing better than failure to make you better. Nothing wrong with failure.” Being sent back down to the Minor League is one of the best things that could have happened to him, as it motivated him to work harder.
Hernandez continued to struggle with success throughout his first full season with the team, until the All-Star break. He was brought up off the bench and was able to begin contributing to the team. He considered the following season to be a breakout year for him and two years later he lead the league in hitting and won MVP honors. It was not until after that season that he began to feel comfortable being a Major League Baseball player and wearing the uniform. He was not able to play up to his potential until he faced his challenges. Reflecting on this time in his life and his learning to overcome his challenges, he advised the athletes, “If you have setbacks, don’t think that you’ve failed.” A huge part of success in sports, both in college and professionally is mentally being a tough player, and Hernandez learned that throughout his career.
Throughout his career, Hernandez had several transitions, some of them between teams and some between careers. After discussing his transition to professional baseball at length, Hernandez discussed his transition from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Mets. Before being signed by the Mets, he was terrified of New York City. Being traded to the Mets was a move to get him off of the Cardinals, so he not only had to deal with transitioning to a new city but a losing franchise. As a result of their location, the Mets received much more media attention, as well. Even though they are officially the New York Mets, media outlets from the entire tri-state area also wrote about the teams. His transition was not an easy one, but his teammates helped him become more comfortable with the city, and he was able to begin to step up and turn the team into a winning franchise. This move proved to be one of the best things that could have happened to him, as many of the stats and games that have solidified his status as a baseball champion happened while he was playing here.
Hernandez played what he believes to be the best games of his life with this team and he considers the 16 inning game he played against Houston to be his personal best. The successes that he enjoyed with this team were also much more gratifying, as he was able to share the victories and the titles with his teammates. Baseball is a team sport, and being able to share the glory with those who helped you get there makes them all the better. Despite the successes that he enjoyed in the middle of his career, Hernandez did not have the fairytale ending to his career that he had hoped for. He blew out his back after pulling a hamstring and after that, he was never the same player.
For five years after retiring, Hernandez was unable to watch baseball. Now, however, he serves as a broadcaster for the Mets, commenting on the game and keeping the fans interested, even when the games run into what he views as a ridiculous number of extra innings. This transition from player to broadcaster was not an easy one for Hernandez, as he would easily get frustrated with lazy play. He would sometimes struggle to remove himself from the game and would grow impatient with the players on the field. However, following a piece of advice from a fellow broadcaster, he began to recognize that not everybody can do what he did and instead began to focus on the effort that the players were putting in. He realizes that as long as the players are putting in the effort, their work should be recognized.
Despite his inability to play anymore, the love and passion Hernandez still has for the sport was pervasive throughout his speech, allowing those gathered to share that passion with him and continue pursuing it regardless of any failures they encounter along the way.