Aram Goudsouzian is the chair of the Department of History at the University of Memphis. His books include “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.”
At the outset, Keith Hernandez promises that he is not writing the formulaic memoir so common among baseball books. If only. “I’m Keith Hernandez” is something worse: It is a narrative mess, doomed by sloppy writing and a lack of self-awareness.
Hernandez has more to offer. He defies the stereotype of the dumb jock. He conquers crossword puzzles and collects art and books. He enjoys the company of creative types such as artists and writers. “Seinfeld” aficionados will recognize the book’s title from his iconic appearance in an episode called “The Boyfriend.”
On the field, he was an outspoken leader, and he has deep knowledge of his sport’s intricacies. The mustachioed star attracted attention, whether in baseball’s backwaters or the nation’s media capital. He had a gorgeous line-drive swing, and he mastered the art of fielding first base, earning 11 Gold Glove awards. With the St. Louis Cardinals, he won the National League MVP award in 1979 and the World Series in 1982. With the New York Mets, he presided over the notorious band of hard-living, fun-loving personalities that won the 1986 World Series. He also stood near the center of Major League Baseball’s 1985 cocaine scandal, testifying in federal court about his drug use.
But “I’m Keith Hernandez” avoids most of the highlights from his heyday. Instead, it concentrates on his formative years in professional baseball, from his minor league debut in 1972 through his emerging stardom in 1980. Hernandez seeks to explain how he developed his batting approach and gained the confidence to thrive.
Hernandez does provide some colorful sketches of minor league life: eccentric teammates and ramshackle ballparks, pill-popping and raunchy hijinks, the crazy tales and basic routines of a baseball life. He is at his best when explaining the years-long refinement of his style at the plate. When he describes his adjustments, such as crowding the plate against left-handed pitchers who had been flummoxing him with breaking balls, he conveys the details that make baseball so compelling.
At times, Hernandez contrasts his own playing days with the modern sport. When railing against baseball’s slow pace or the over-quantified management of today’s players, he can sound grumpy and old-fashioned. But these assessments are often perceptive, and they dovetail with his current job as a broadcaster for the Mets. His television work has earned both praise and eye-rolls, as he is a keen, if sometimes goofy, observer of the game.
In the book, though, Hernandez writes as if he is on a broadcast, jumping from topic to topic, filling empty space. He relates mundane scenes from his everyday life, such as shopping for eggs or buying air conditioner filters, that bear no obvious relevance to anything else in the memoir. At one point he describes himself at his dining room table, writing the very book we are reading. It is quite bizarre.
“I’m Keith Hernandez” is stuffed with bad writing choices. Almost half the pages have a footnote that offers a superfluous fact or purposeless story. Some passages are inset for no evident reason. While re-creating dialogue for one story, Hernandez admits that the speaker would never have used that language. His sentences are dotted with cliched phrases such as “Houston, we have a problem” and “Folks, I can’t make this stuff up.” Most annoying, he seems addicted to italics, especially for corny asides.
Hernandez’s writing style is frustrating, but the book is a failure because he resists any clear-eyed reckoning with his insecurities. As a young ballplayer, despite his well-honed talents, he suffered from a lack of confidence. Near his low point in the minor leagues, he had a panicky out-of-body experience. In the majors, he was wounded by the treatment of gruff veterans such as Bob Gibson, though he never admits it — instead he celebrates the players who nurtured him, such as Lou Brock.
Hernandez does not explain why he lacked self-belief. Perhaps it is unclear to him. But it is obvious to any reader: His father, John, a former minor league first baseman, forced his major league dreams upon his son. Whether Keith was in high school or professional ball, his father boomed instructions from the stands. He drilled Keith in the fundamentals and berated bad performances. Hernandez matter-of-factly tells a host of stories in which his father imposes his will, all in the service of Keith’s baseball career. At his father’s behest, he even delayed his first marriage for a year.
“I’m Keith Hernandez” does not grapple with the irony of his rise to stardom. Without his father’s tutelage and drive, he may have never reached the big leagues. Yet to be truly great, he had to shape his own destiny and become his own man. As the memoir closes, his father beams with pride while showing an old home movie of young Keith swinging the bat, and the adult Keith feels validated. “I realized why he’d been so hard on me,” he reflects.
Until this point, Hernandez had kept hinting at a knotty father-son relationship rooted in both love and resentment. This final gesture of acceptance seems inauthentic, reflecting an unwillingness to confront his demons. It provides an unsatisfying ending to a flawed book.
By Keith Hernandez
Little, Brown. 341 pp. $28