Met Cute

I'm Keith Hernandez: A Memoir BY Keith Hernandez. Little, Brown and Company. Hardcover, 352 pages. $28.

The cover of I'm Keith Hernandez: A Memoir

In 2006, Ivan Felt and Harris Conklin—the alter egos of Jonathan Lethem and Christopher Sorrentino—collaborated on Believeniks!, their ode to the Mets. After more than a decade of silence, they recently resurfaced to weigh in on I’m Keith Hernandez (Little, Brown, $28), and to reminisce about highlights in the history of the beleaguered Queens franchise. —eds.

Dear Ivan, I’m watching Mets-Nats on the laptop my nephew Orson (the names on these kids!) mercifully debugged for me. It’s the “ Free Game of the Day,” thus my reprieve from the multiple layers of techno-exile that typically restrict me to the radio team. My reward is I’ve got TV color-man Keith, chuckling and chortling at me, as if he knows I’ve just finished the galley of his memoir (I cadged it from one of my poet-buddies in the Strand basement).

Pitchers’ duel, Matz-Gonzalez, pretty good game, at the start of a pretty good season. Spring Hopes Eternal! Sludge Heaps Infernal!

Keith’s a man out of time. Already, fourth inning, I’ve heard, “That’s flashin’ leather!,” “He’s the second coming of Bernie Carbo,” and—in pointed precedence over the current vogue for “launch angle”—Keith’s preferred “uppercut swing.” Criticizing the contemporary players’ capacity for sliding, he searches for a suitably disappointed adjective, and heaves out: “I could go with the Three Stooges and say ‘putrid.’ ”

His book is weird. I’m not saying I didn’t admire the approach—a failure-drenched coming-of-age-in-the-minors tale, alternating with snapshots of a cranky broadcaster slogging his way down the Long Island Expressway. Spoiler: This isn’t a book about playing for the Mets! He gets the reader just beyond his MVP season with the 1979 Cardinals, which sounds further along than it feels in the reading, since in Keith’s intrapsychic accounting he’s at that point still a tormented rookie just barely earning the respect of his peers. There are good stories of being red-assed by Bob Gibson and sagely mentored by Lou Brock, of encounters with Baseball Annies and Roger Waters, but dare I say this book has a hole in it? One precisely the size and shape of my heart?

Sludge Infernally, Conk

Keith Hernandez Mets baseball card, 1985.
Keith Hernandez Mets baseball card, 1985.

Conk—Such subterfuge. I got my galley quite easily: I asked a Yankees fan who happened to have one and he gave it up as easily as I might surrender The Don Mattingly Story. I had to listen to his drunken verbal replay of the 2000 World Series first, but that was no sweat: What could hold a candle to actually having endured it?

Keith always was a sort of Bizarro-Met, like Tom Seaver. These guys come along every fifteen years or so and refuse to lose, as if they didn’t bother to read the mission statement when they signed up, and end up pulling the team into some kind of shape. I rank Keith alongside Tom advisedly, and for that reason alone it’s difficult to evaluate his book. I want to forgive its stylistic sins, or maybe the phrase I’m looking for is stylistic predictability, and celebrate the man himself. If he’s not going to write a better book than David Wells then at least I can dream that he’s the more coherent man. But is he? Smart and demonstrably thoughtful as he is, Hernandez boasts, he exhorts the doubtful to follow his example of hard work and adaptability, he blusters about changes to the game and to society, he drops names—in other words, he writes exactly the sports memoir expected of him. You’re right about that hole. Did poor, insecure Keith ever realize that he was good? Did he ever tell his father—who he comes this close to outing as abusive in his hyper-competitiveness and insistence on living vicariously through his son’s experiences on the field—to fuck off? Why does he seem so alone in his own book?

In Peter Handke’s Afternoon of a Writer the narrator writes of the eponymous protagonist that “it was as though his work, an airy castle only a short while before, had never been, and when he looked in the mirror he saw his enemy.” How else would the retired athlete see his life’s work? What else could the retired athlete see in that failing body?

There’s your hole, Conklin. Afternoon of a Sportscaster. The First Baseman’s Anxiety at the Sacrifice Bunt. Despite its diary of his busy present, its colorful anecdotes of the past, and whatever the reality may be, Keith presents as an old man, living with his cat, as isolated and adrift in the past as Dom Casmurro.

xoxo, Ivan

Ivan, You’ve nailed it with the comparison to Seaver. In fact, that was my Big Theory: Hernandez is a hitter in the grip of a pitcher’s temperament, a pitcher’s tendency to self-absorption, a pitcher’s fundamental condition of naked autonomy, and a pitcher’s secretly and defensively feminine relation to the masculine milieu of the batsman. I think it’s a clue his book hides, as all good mysteries hide their clues, right in the opening pages. In his introduction, circling his material, trying to figure out where to land, Keith lines up exemplary anecdotes from Three Wise Men: Tom Seaver, Don Sutton, and Nolan Ryan. Pitchers!

That’s what I want this book to be. A story about a promising talent who became a professional ballplayer with a lot of expectations but not necessarily with the moxie to “own it”—to get in the box against guys like Tom Seaver, Don Sutton, and Nolan Ryan and say, “Ok, I’m gonna go toe-to-toe with you, and I’m gonna win.”

I think “get in the box against” is the red herring here—Hernandez identifies with the pitchers. For me, this explains the great existential cameo of his career (a tale howling in its absence from this book): that when Mookie’s grounder through Buckner’s legs capped the rally in Game 6 in ’86, Keith was sitting alone in the clubhouse, smoking a cigarette, watching on television. Like a starting pitcher. The game was over because he’d exited it.

Yet I wonder: What book could have satisfied me? None, I think, would have formed any wedge into the mysterioso relation between ravished fan (myself forever) and ravishing player (Keith not as broadcaster, not as Seinfeld character, nor as author, but as #17 in orange and blue, now islanded at first base, now scooping a crappy Rafael Santana bounce-throw, now balancing a donuted bat in the deck, awaiting his turn). That Keith Hernandez, my favorite Met forever, bar Seaver—that #17 has herewith declined to appear.

And why should he?

Love, Conk

Conklin, I love you because you are more sentimental than I am, which means that I have both the perfect foil and a guy who’ll always be able to share his Kleenex with me at the movies. Remember when we wept through Fly Away Home? The inadequate father, the bereaved daughter, little Igor who couldn’t fly, Dana Delany, with a cameo appearance by Air Force Rescue: For once I felt like Everyman, and whenever I want to reproduce that feeling I rewatch the movie, which happens more often as I get older—but never in springtime, I notice, when young men take the field of play and snap their elbow ligaments like old rubber bands, which makes me glad that I’m getting old like an everyday old person, and not like a young person aging out of a game measured in tenths of a second.

Speaking of defensiveness in the face of feelings of masculine inadequacy, Hernandez seems a little sensitive about being a line-drive hitter, no? Maybe, since he played his entire career before the advent of the Camden Yards Tinker Toy ballpark template, he saw which way the wind was blowing, and that his contribution to the game would be devalued in the era of steroids and 350-foot power alleys. (I still have trouble believing he’s not in the Hall of Fame. Of course, neither is Gil Hodges, so he’s in good company at first base.) All those anecdotes about “Judy hitters” (or, more piquantly, when he tells of Ted Williams accusing him of “pussy hitting”), the existential dread over being coached early in his career to hit the ball to the opposite field, as if he were being groomed to be a jailhouse punk. Which is another way the book’s conclusion at the close of the 1979 season is so frustrating—whatever was going on in the Cardinals’ clubhouse couldn’t possibly have held a candle to the crazed psychosexual drama that would run at Shea from 1984–1989. Reggie Jackson may have been the straw that stirred the drink up in the Bronx, but in Flushing it was Darryl Strawberry’s cock that stirred it.

But I think there’s a reason why the book leaves us stranded in St. Louis after its exhaustive account of life in the bushes of Tulsa and Little Rock: Hernandez may be a Mets hero—hey, he’s wearing a Mets uniform on the book’s jacket—but his book’s sensibility is purely red state (with adjustments made for the sensibilities of Suffolk County and Staten Island residents). In its pages I hear, to my dismay, that appeal to so-called common sense and an imaginary auld lang syne that pushed the King of Humbug into the White House. You of all people understand that I like the cranky geezer routine when applied to things like the designated-hitter rule, interleague play, rampant expansion, use of instant replay, Sabermetric determinism, the presence of the Astros in the American League, and the presence of the Rockies anywhere at all, and on at least some of these subjects I’m gratified to learn that Captain Keith and I are in complete agreement. But how many times does Keith jam his Bally loafers into his mouth? Does he really think that “gals” in the dugout will fall into a faint if players fart and curse in front of them? Didn’t anyone think to suggest to him that 2018 might be past time to retire his anecdote about gathering with his Tulsa teammates to watch through pre-cut holes in a set of hotel drapes as one of his teammates has sex with a “fairly attractive,” and presumably unsuspecting, woman? Can he hear himself when he protests that the main reason not to call him “Mex” is because the blood pulsing through his veins is purely Castilian? Even I know what it is to be woke. Nobody’s asking you to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but maybe older and wiser?

MAGA, Ivan

Ivan, Well, here we are again. Now the team has dropped 3 of 4, and 5 of 7. Either getting back in touch with you was a jinx on Mickey “The Moocher” Callaway’s boys, or reading Keith’s book was. I’m dropping it, in favor of his Twitter feed—it’s better written! As for our communiqués, let’s bag this epistolary shit, and go nosh.

Yours, C.