I’M KEITH HERNANDEZ

Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer

@HowieMooney

Saturday, November 20, 2021


 Screen Capture from Seinfeld Episode ‘The Boyfriend’, February, 1992

I’M KEITH HERNANDEZ!      

There are times when the world of sports and the world of popular culture meet up and they make beautiful music together.  In the case I’m about to relate to you, this is a story of baseball hooking up with one of the most popular situation comedies of its day and perhaps of all time.  This is a story of how World Series champion, National League Most Valuable Player and 11-time Gold Glove winner Keith Hernandez came to appear on Seinfeld.

For those who may not know, Keith Hernandez began his playing career with the St. Louis Cardinals.  He played in fourteen games in the 1974 season when he was 20-years-old.  By 1976, he was becoming a regular in the Cards’ lineup appearing in 129 games and hitting .289.  The following year, he played in 161 games, hit 41 doubles, knocked in 91 runs and batted .291.  By 1979, Hernandez was a star, leading the league with a .344 average, clubbing 48 doubles, knocking in 105 runs and being named both an All-Star and NL co-MVP along with Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell.

In 1980, Hernandez led the National League in on-base percentage and runs scored.  In 1980, 1981 and 1982, he was in the top 20 in MVP voting each year and he was a Gold Glove winner every year at first base from 1978 through 1983.  But in that 1983 season, the Cardinals’ braintrust decided that they needed pitching help.  The only question was where would they get it?

At the trading deadline, in the summer of 1983, they saw an opportunity and they made a decision.  They traded Hernandez to the lowly New York Mets for right handed pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey.  The 30-year-old Hernandez was not necessarily surprised by the deal.  “I wasn’t shocked that I was traded,” the Associated Press quoted Hernandez as saying, “I was shocked it was to the Mets.” 

“I talked to (Mets’ GM) Frank Cashen and he’s very excited about their getting me.  They’re hoping I can turn things around.  Hopefully, I can.”  For Cardinals’ manager Whitey Herzog, it came down to one thing.  “We had to decide if we would have enough hitting if we did this or if we would have enough pitching if we didn’t do it.”  So they did it.

His affect on the Mets wasn’t immediate, however.  At least, it wasn’t in that 1983 season.  The Mets finished in last place in the East Division, having won just 68 games.  But the following year, things would start looking better for the players and the fans at Shea Stadium.  For starters, the additions of new manager Davey Johnson and 19-year-old pitching phenom Dwight Gooden to the starting rotation helped immensely.

Gooden went 17-9, Hernandez hit .311 and the Mets won 90 games, finishing second in the East.  Gooden finished second in the Cy Young voting, Hernandez finished second in the MVP voting and Johnson finished second in the Manager of the Year voting.  Things were certainly heading on the way up for the baseball team in Queens.

With the addition of All-Star catcher Gary Carter to the Mets prior to the 1985 season, the team continued to improve.  They won 98 games that year but finished second to the Cardinals who would win the National League pennant but would end up losing the World Series to the Kansas City Royals in seven games.

1986 was THE year for the Mets.  They put it all together and they finished at the top of the East Division with 108 wins.  They knocked off the Houston Astros in the National League Championship Series in six games and then they defeated the Boston Red Sox in that infamous World Series. 

The biggest match of that 1986 Series was, of course, the sixth game.  It was played at Shea Stadium and the Red Sox had come into the game with a 3-2 series lead.  The score was tied 3-3 after nine innings.  Boston then scored two runs in the top of the tenth to take what felt like an insurmountable two-run lead.  Calvin Schiraldi had pitched the eighth and the ninth and he was still pitching in the bottom of the tenth for the Sox. 

Wally Backman started the inning off for the Mets by flying out to left.  Hernandez then hit a ball deep to center but it was flagged down and caught by Dave Henderson.  Then Gary Carter hit a ball that dropped into left field for a single.  The pitcher’s spot was due up, but Kevin Mitchell pinch hit for Rick Aguilera.  He singled to center moving Carter to second.  Ray Knight then came up and hit a liner to right-center field that scored Carter and moved Mitchell up to third.  Schiraldi’s night was over.

Bob Stanley came out to try to put this fire out and give Boston a World Series victory they had not had in decades.  Mookie Wilson was the batter.  Wilson worked the count to two balls and two strikes.  The next pitch from Stanley went to the backstop and allowed Mitchell to come home with the tying run.  Knight moved up ninety feet as well.

Then, on the 3-2 pitch, Wilson hit that soft ground ball up the first base line.  Boston manager John McNamara had left Bill Buckner out at first so that he could be on the field to celebrate with his teammates at the end of the game and the Series.  But his 36-year-old body betrayed him and the ball rolled through his legs into right field.  Wilson reached on the error but, more importantly, Knight came home with the game-winning run.  The series was now tied.

That World Series win was undoubtedly a career highlight for Hernandez.  He would be an All-Star at first base in 1986 and 1987 and would collect Gold Gloves in those years and for the eleventh consecutive year in 1988.  His last year as a Met would be 1989.  His production and his availability had slipped in those last two years due to age and injuries and he would finish his career in 1990 as a member of the Cleveland Indians. 

He appeared in just 43 games in Cleveland as injuries had been affecting his ability to get out on to the field.  He retired after that season with a .296 batting average, almost 2,200 hits, over 1,000 runs batted in, five All-Star Game appearances, the MVP in 1979 and, of course, the eleven Gold Gloves.

Jerry Seinfeld was a native New Yorker and a big fan of the New York Mets.  If he didn’t idolize that 1986 team, then he really liked them a lot!  He had been a Mets fan all his life.  One night in June of 2012, he was on a flight from South Bend, Indiana and when he landed, he was told that the Mets’ Johan Santana had thrown the first no-hitter in the team’s history.  He immediately got on the phone with Steve Somers on WFAN.  He called in regularly and was known on the air as ‘Jerry from Queens’.

“I was told by the driver that the Mets just had their first no-hitter,” he said to Somers on the call.  “And I just dropped my bags right there on the curb and went ‘NO!’”  Seinfeld went on, “This is the Yankee Curse.  When you’re a Yankee fan, you can’t have a thrill like this (no-hitter).  If the Mets had three no-hitters, just think of what we would be missing, what we would have missed out on.  That’s what we call Mets’ Magic.  They have this thing where they can thrill you in the most unexpected ways.  That’s why we love them!”

Given Jerry’s love of the Mets, it was no surprise that he would inevitably try to get one of the former star members of the team to appear on his sitcom.  He wanted Keith Hernandez.  The particular episode was written by Larry David and Larry Levin.  When it came time to get Hernandez though, they weren’t exactly sure how to reach him.  They ended up calling his old baseball agent.

Hernandez told the story of how he found out about the whole thing on the Colin Cowherd Show in 2017.  “They didn’t know how to get a hold of me.  I don’t know why in the world -- I was two years retired -- that they didn’t just call the Mets.  But they wound up calling my old agent, Scott Boras.  So, Scott called me.  I’m in New York and he goes, ‘I got this opportunity for you.’  He wasn’t even my agent anymore.  I was not even playing baseball.  And he says ‘The Seinfeld Show’, and I said ‘What is that?’”

Hernandez had explained earlier that, as a baseball player, he played most of his games at night and so he had never watched any prime-time television. 

Boras responded to Hernandez’ question “’It’s a sitcom...and they want to have you come out for a week to L.A. and it will probably be ‘minimal lines’’, and I said ‘How much?’, and he says, ‘Well, they’ll fly you out first-class and they’ll put you up for a week in a nice hotel and they’ll play you fifteen grand’, and I said ‘I’ll do it!’  Of course, no one’s gonna spit on $15,000.” 

“They overnight the script to me and I look at it and I go ‘Oh my gosh!’  I had so many lines!  So, a good friend of mine from New York was Marsha Mason.  She was in Taos.  I called her on the phone and I said ‘Marsha, I need your help!’  So to memorize my lines, she said ‘Line 1, Line 2, Line 3, then go to bed and do your lines’, so I knew everybody’s lines in the scenes that I did.”

“So I was petrified.  I had never acted.  This was my first gig and we had to do it in front of a live audience and I was petrified!  I didn’t mess up though.  But I was nervous.  Oh my gawd!”

Looking back on it now, that two-part show is one of the most iconic episodes of the nine-year run of the series.  Hernandez plays himself in the show but his character and Elaine Benes end up going on a few dates together.  A sub-story in the episode involves Kramer and Newman and a spitting incident that they thought involved Hernandez.  In a JFK (the movie)-like moment, we learn that Hernandez was not the person who spat at them at all.  There was a ‘second spitter’ that turned out to be Roger McDowell, one of Hernandez’ ex-teammates.

Originally, the plan was to have Darryl Strawberry be that ‘second spitter’, but, seeing that Strawberry was going through some legal difficulties at the time, it wasn’t prudent to place him in that role at that time. 

That spitting incident allegedly took place in a game on June 14, 1987 in a game at Shea Stadium against the Phillies.  In that game, Hernandez committed an error that allowed the Phils to score five runs and defeat the Mets.  For Kramer and Newman, their “day was ruined”.  In reality, on that date, the Mets were in Pittsburgh to play the Pirates.  Hernandez committed no errors that day.  But it’s a great case for artistic license.

That episode, which was first entitled “The New Friend” and later renamed “The Boyfriend”, has long been lauded as one of the best and most memorable of all the Seinfeld shows.  TV Guide ranked the episode as fourth in their 1997 list of The Top 100 TV Episodes of All Time.  Jerry considers this episode to be his favourite of all the Seinfeld shows.

Hernandez received his $15,000 for his work on that show.  But then he also received royalties for his appearances for years afterward.  He says that he still gets paid every time the episodes go on the air.  In 2015, he told NJ.com “So I’m going to say that I get a check every month.  Nothing less than six weeks.  They show it all the time.  It’s international and everything.  It used to be almost $1,000 (each time).  It diminishes as the years go by.  So it gives me around $3,000 per year.  I’ll take it.  For doing nothing.”

Hernandez added, “So you can imagine what Jerry gets.  The principal actors, what they get.”

Royalties are kind of like compound interest.  And didn’t George Costanza once say something about interest?  “Interest.  It’s an amazing thing.  You make money without doing anything.”  That’s the way to do it, Georgie!