David Wright’s Keith Hernandez Moment

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No one will ever confuse the aw shucks, golly gee image of David Wright with the overt leadership of the cigarette smoking bad boy and manipulative architect of clubhouse politics, Keith Hernandez; but the similarities between Wright bypassing his 2013-2014 opportunity at free agency and sign with the Mets for what amounts to 8-years and $138 million—NY Times story—and Hernandez staying with the Mets in 1983-84 are underlying and significant.

When Hernandez was traded from the Cardinals to the Mets, Whitey Herzog was in part seeking a relief pitcher he’d always coveted in Neil Allen and in part had had enough of Hernandez, his lazy work habits, sense of entitlement, and poor attitude. As a result of the confluence of events, Herzog shipped Hernandez out of St. Louis. At the time, Hernandez was bitter and angry about the trade and certainly didn’t want to go to the perennial last place Mets, a team that he and the Cardinals had openly laughed at when they saw the slogan “The Magic is Back” in the early 1980s. In later years, after the butting of the heads of two strong-willed men subsided and the competition between the Mets and Cardinals was nothing but a memory, Hernandez and Herzog reconciled with Hernandez admitting that his attitude was terrible and Herzog was right to trade him; he also said that next to his father, no one taught him more about the game of baseball than Herzog. The two are close to this day and Hernandez has referred to Herzog as a “dear friend.”

In 1983, however, no one wanted to go to the Mets. As much of a loonybin as the Yankees were, their crosstown co-residents (because they weren’t rivals) were, as Hernandez said in his highly underrated 1986 book If At First, the “Siberia of baseball.”

In that same book, on pages 10-11, Hernandez discussed the difficult decision to remain with the Mets after the 1983 season:

Frank Cashen, the Mets’ general manager, realized that I wasn’t thrilled with my new circumstances. He also knew the Mets would have nothing to show for the trade if I became a free agent.

“Tell us after the year, Keith, how you feel,” he said. “Give me two weeks before the winter meetings. If you want, we’ll trade you. We don’t want to lose you for nothing.”

That was fair. I owed it to them.

***

The state of the ballclub was my chief consideration. I wouldn’t have signed with a sure loser for any sum.

***

My father, a former minor-leaguer with baseball connections all over, checked with scouts around the league and reported back about some great young arms in the minors, just about ready.

I decided the Mets had a chance to be a better ballclub in 1984, maybe fourth place, but I also feared I would be signing up for six years of sixth place—dead last. It was a scary thought.

***

In the end, I gambled. After making any number of wrong decisions over the years, I decided to go against my natural instinct. I wanted to leave, so I stayed instead.

I had never met Dwight Gooden or Ron Darling.

Wright isn’t the man the reporters go to for off-the-record quotes ripping teammates, coaches, managers, and front office folk as they sometimes did with Hernandez. The first baseman, cigarette in hand, would give the on-the-record, canned reply and then utter the truth that he wanted out there as an unnamed source. It wasn’t a chicken method either; Hernandez would also directly inform the objects of his ire what he thought. Using the media was a last resort and done so because the man-to-man approach wasn’t yielding the desired effect. That was the key with Keith: he used the media; the media used him and everyone knew the parameters of the relationship and the deal.

Hernandez had star power on and off the field and, at the time, was the coolest guy in New York. Wright is cool in a geeky, good boy way. Wright isn’t the cagey operator that Hernandez was. He’s the unambiguous leader of the current Mets on and off the field, lets his teammates know when they’re not pulling their share of the load or are behaving in a manner he sees as unprofessional, and is popular throughout baseball with everyone from opposing players, to coaches, to managers, to GMs, to owners, and umpires.

Wright was faced with the same dilemma Hernandez was: a team that has long been the butt of jokes; few free agents willing to come unless they were drastically overpaid and had no other option; and limited resources in comparison to other clubs, specifically the one across town. But there were reasons and advantages to staying as well. They got their money pre-free agency without having to sing for their supper and endure the yearlong questions as to their intentions; the alternatives might not be all that enticing considering what happened with big spending hot stove champions the Red Sox, Angels, Phillies and Marlins who signed players like Albert Pujols and Wright’s friend and former teammate Jose Reyes to big deals only to degenerate into absurdity that had heretofore been the Mets’ primary domain.

Would that money be there a year from now? Would the Mets be forced to trade Wright if he didn’t sign? And what about the young pitchers Jonathon Niese, Matt Harvey and the onrushing Zack Wheeler?

Wright and Hernandez are light years away from one another as people, but they had a similar choice to make in moving forward with a “might be” rather than move on to what “is.” And both made the right call in staying with the Mets.

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Jason Bay Was a Big Time Power Hitter…

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“Listen, I’ve found something else.”

The above quote is from Keith Hernandez’s book If At First about the 1985 season with the Mets. Hernandez’s dad was his main hitting coach from childhood and during a horrific slump, was trying to help his son regain the swing that made him one of the premier hitters in baseball.

Studying old tapes while Hernandez was with the Cardinals, his dad saw that Hernandez had gradually opened his stance until it was too open; also, he wasn’t seeing the full uniform number on his back from the centerfield camera as his son prepared to swing.

Hernandez didn’t buy it. It was “automatic”. He simply knew where to place his foot when he stepped into the box. He knew how far to turn and other small details of his swing.

He knew.

But his dad was right.

Shortly after making the adjustments with his stance, hands and hip turn in July of 1985, Hernandez went on a tear batting .392 in July with a 1.122 OPS and won Player of the Month.

Veteran players who’ve had success, in general, have a series of checkpoints that they adhere to. There’s not much for a hitting coach to tell them because they’ve usually figured it out for themselves.

But sometimes the hitter needs a coach to tell him what he sees and intervene if it’s not working. If imperceptible alterations have been made without the hitter realizing it, they have to be nipped before becoming ingrained.

In this Sports Illustrated article about Jason Bay, Mets hitting coach Dave Hudgens looked at Bay’s swing, stance and approach while he was with the Red Sox in 2008-2009 and noticed the differences between then and what Bay’s done in his two years with the Mets.

It’s amazing how quickly a great hitter like Hernandez or one that’s been a top power producer like Bay loses confidence and listens to everyone and tries everything.

Bay made the changes Hudgens suggested in September of 2011 and started hitting.

It was only one month, but he had a .313/.392/.563 slash line with 3 homers and 7 doubles. That’s the hitter the Mets thought they were getting.

Those who were savaging Bay as a disaster because of his injuries and poor performance with the Mets used silly arguments to “prove” their assertions.

“It’s because of Citi Field.”

The Pirates’ home of PNC Park is about as tough a hitter’s park as Citi Field and Bay was fine while playing there. As a Met, he’s hit much better at home in Citi Field than he has on the road.

“It’s because he’s a Met.”

What one thing has to do with another is beyond me and it might be because there’s no evidence—other than lame jokes—that signing with the Mets has anything to do with an established All-Star player’s decline. Are the Mets worse than the Pirates were while Bay was there? No.

Sometimes the reason for a fall is obvious. When a player is doing something differently from what worked and is failing, obviously he needs to go back to what he did before. But he has to have someone point it out and he has to listen.

Will Bay again become the player he was with the Pirates? With the Red Sox? Will he stay healthy?

Or will we have a repeat of his first two seasons with the Mets?

There’s no answer until the games start, but a good indicator of a player’s future performance is his past performance and for Bay—someone who was never accused of using any PEDs—to have suddenly “lost” it at age 31 is ludicrous.

Hernandez went back to what he did before and it worked. Bay’s doing the same thing.

Will it work?

Look at the back of the card at his numbers before he joined the Mets. For those seven seasons, he was a top power hitter; for two, he’s been a disaster.

I’ll take the seven over the two and believe that he’s going to hit because that’s what he did before.

It’s not all that hard to figure out.

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