Fun-lov­ing base­ball star’s high jinks in life and mas­tery on the di­a­mond

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY ARAM GOUDSOUZIAN

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.

Aram Goudsouzian is the chair­man of the de­part­ment of his­tory at the Univer­sity of Mem­phis. His books in­clude “King of the Court: Bill Rus­sell and the Bas­ket­ball Rev­o­lu­tion.”

By Keith Her­nan­dez Lit­tle, Brown. 341 pp. $28

I’M KEITH HER­NAN­DEZ A Mem­oir

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