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Keith Hernandez and his overbearing father/hitting coach

Those who write about St. Louis Cardinals centerfielder Colby Rasmus’ use of outside hitting instruction with a sense of astonishment either have blinders on or don’t know much about baseball history. Since almost the game’s beginning, players have relied on parents or coaches from the past as important resources because they know the player’s swing or delivery better than anyone.

This doesn’t mean that I am taking sides in the current flap over Rasmus’ slump and the widely-reported deployment of his father as his batting mentor over his hitting coaches with the Cardinals. All I am saying is that the situation is not nearly as unusual as some might lead you to believe.

There wasn’t an internet in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but if there had been, I bet we would all know the name of John Hernandez, father of former Cardinals, Mets and Indians first baseman Keith Hernandez.

“John was a demanding father who immersed himself in the athletic lives of his sons, requiring them to take written tests on baseball strategy and analyzing film of their little league games to improve their swings,” wrote Ian C. Friedman in his book, “Latino Athletes.”

In a 1994 New York Magazine article entitled “The After Life,” Chris Smith said this.

“Hernandez loved the game, but one reason he played it with such fury was that his father never stopped hounding him. Beginning when Keith was 6, John Hernandez – a former minor-leaguer whose promising career ended when he was hit in the head by a pitch – tutored, drilled and badgered his son into greatness. Even after Keith became a pro, John Hernandez was monitoring every swing via a satellite dish in the backyard of the suburban San Francisco home where Keith had grown up.”

If there is one background article from this post that you select to read, it definitely should be an October 1986 article from Sports Illustrated’s William Nack, entitled “He’s Still Not Home Free.”

Nack cited the following example of a clash over hitting instruction early in Hernandez’ career with the Cardinals. Keith debuted with St. Louis in 1974 at the age of 20, but struggled the next season.

“Hernandez was hitting .250 for the Cards when they sent him back to Tulsa in June 1975. The St. Louis batting instructor, Harry (the Hat) Walker, had been asking him to hit every pitch to the opposite field, no matter where it was in the strike zone. John Hernandez had taught him to go with the pitch, to all fields, and now Keith could no longer pull the ball. Slumping, he was benched and finally sent back to Tulsa. There, manager Ken Boyer tried to help him regain his old stroke. He ended up hitting .330 in Tulsa, and that was it for minor league ball.”

In 1979, Hernandez became co-Most Valuable Player of the National League, batting a career-best .344. The next three years were much harder for the first baseman, however.

In “Cardinals Encyclopedia,” Mike Eisenbath summarized some of Hernandez’ later troubles in St. Louis.

“…He dealt with problems in his marriage and heard persistent trade rumors. The barrage of criticism was occasionally heavy concerning a perceived lack of hustle and selfishness on his part…”

Whitey Herzog dealt Hernandez to the New York Mets on June 15, 1983, for starting pitcher Neil Allen and reliever Rick Ownbey. Though rumors were swirling around Hernandez, only later did his cocaine use at the time become common knowledge as he was called to testify about it in a 1985 grand jury trial. He later said he cleaned up on his own prior to the 1983 season, but it was apparently too late for Herzog.

Despite the reasons behind the trade, it became one of the worst in Cardinals history and a spark for a then-last place Mets team. Hernandez went on to serve as a leader for the young World Champion 1986 New York club.

In the above-referenced SI article published during Hernandez’ Mets heyday, Nack wrote about John Hernandez, then 63 years of age and still a major part of his 33-year-old son’s professional preparation – like it or not.

“…John Hernandez, Juan to his son, is an obsessive and overbearing man who taught Keith how to hit and field, and the simple truth is that no one, no manager or batting instructor, knows the nuances of his swing half as well as his father does…

“For years, John’s understanding of Keith’s stroke has been the tether that has kept these two men together. Keith knows that no one can help him out of a slump as quickly as his father can, and so, throughout his career, he has often turned to his father for help. At the same time, he has felt the compelling need to break away from his father and make it on his own, to be his own man…

“…Hernandez’s friends well know the conflict. (Mets teammate Ed) Lynch says he once heard Keith say, ‘God, why doesn’t he leave me alone?’ – then a half hour later he heard Keith on the phone asking his dad for help with his stroke.”

After retiring in 1991, Hernandez stayed away from the game for a number of years. New York Magazine’s Smith explained in 1994 that the relationship between player and father/coach did not end well.

“It wasn’t physical pain though that drove him into a self-imposed exile from baseball. He shut off his mind from the game to try to erase the emotional hurt that he associated with baseball, which was tangled up with the anger at his father.

“For four years, Hernandez has talked weekly with a psychiatrist. But before father and son could go to the movies without arguing over how Keith should handle the split-fingered fastball, John Hernandez died of cancer.”

John Hernandez passed away as players reported to spring camp in March 1992, the start of Keith’s second year out of baseball since 1959. Now 57 years of age, Keith Hernandez is back in the game as an analyst for New York Mets telecasts.

Who knows if this short look back into history has any relationship to Colby Rasmus’ situation, past, present or future, other than to remind us that a close and complex relationship between a major league player and his father/coach is not unique, even for the St. Louis Cardinals.

If Rasmus is dealt away for a starter and reliever, Cardinals fans should hope their names won’t be remembered almost 30 years later for the wrong reason as are Allen and Ownbey today.

Should Colby Rasmus be traded?

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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71 Responses to “Keith Hernandez and his overbearing father/hitting coach”

  1. WestCoastbirdWatcher says:

    Now this ……….. is a nice piece of work ……………. in my study on gifted athletes and musicians, who were mentored by their parents, this troubling co-dependence often developed………… first signs of it begin to show at a relatively early age, with a symptom I called “metering” or “gaging” ……… this has the child avoiding all signs of ” intense effort” or displaying high end psychical and/or emotional exertion. ………….The purpose being an attempt by the child to control access and frequency to the emotional gratifications/complements received as rewards for extreme efforts from the parent……….. This would insure that a complement or a release from castigation for a competitive failure, could be controlled by a particular display of effort………. the symptoms often make the child appear “lackadaisical” even when they are preforming at a reasonably high level in comparison to their peer group……thus by learning to set an easily achieved standard or expectation of effort, the child feels empowered in their ability to ensure them selfs “low stress” performance expectations………

    Lets face it……….. anyone that goes through the little league world series, and does not have the Asia social traditions, is going to have to do some “pretty intense coaching”……….

    All that said…….co-dependence is always mutually addictive…… what we’re seeing here is a variant of those behaviors………. I’m sure RC and I have discussed this at some point…….. we called it weening I believe…………….. its tough work when your kid is a millionaire………. and still displays a desire to pull his end of that co-dependent “string” that ties them together…….. a fathers work in never over it would seem………..we should all empathize with RC and loan him whatever we can as he tries to cut that string…………………… the true hope in acknowledging the problem, is that the joy/endorphin cascades……. surrounding high end efforts……. and withstanding their consequences as an individual………… can come to fruition at any age…………………….And I believe we would all like to see Colby’s high end, along with his displays of joy in showing it…………….. you can accomplish this RC……..just keep at it.

    • CariocaCardinal says:

      Sounds plausible even though I believe RC has denied that some of the people involved have acte and performed in the manner described (though he could be too close to the situation to see it clearly). I would think having other prodigy siblings (even if the same type of relationship does or does not exist) would make it easier for RC should the string be cut before he is ready.

      The assumption here is the relationship is problematic in its current form and needs to be changed and I’m not sure that is the case.

  2. crdswmn says:

    I would be willing to bet the prevalence of father as mentor/coach is a lot more prevalent in MLB than most people think. Maybe that is the reason the Cardinals don’t have a policy against outside help as is probably the case with many other ball clubs if someone were to look into it. I would imagine TLR doesn’t like it one bit though, irregardless of what he says in public.

    It’s been my observation that the fan outrage about RC has more to do with his posting his opinions on this board and elsewhere than it does about his coaching of Colby, the recent rumpus notwithstanding. The fact that he does not at all times bow on the altar of all things Cardinal is what sticks most in the craw of the faithful. The coaching stuff is just more palatable of an excuse to ask for his head on a platter than his exercising his right to express his opinion.

    We who post on this board on a regular basis have the advantage of more exposure to RC and therefore more opportunity to gauge the credibility of what he posts. We have been able to judge for ourselves what credence we give to what he has to say and to see it in the broad context of its environment, so to speak. Most do not have that luxury and so turn to the analysis of others, especially the media, for their take on it. However, quotes taken out of context and unfamiliarity with the subject breeds nothing good and leads to misunderstanding and misinformation. That coupled with individual biases becomes the Colby frenzy that we see today. I think most of us accept and respect RC’s posts for what they bring to the discussion, whether we agree with him or not, hence our collective lack of concern for what others see as a hanging offense.

    Having said all that, the bottom line is that Colby has to perform or there will be consequences just as there are with all other players. We should be more concerned with the result than the method. I know I am.

    • Brian Walton says:

      It is interesting you should mention that, crdswmn. As we know, RC has been very quiet in recent weeks, not currently stirring the pot publicly as far as I can tell. Just this morning on The Cardinal Nation message board, a poster pasted a set of RC’s comments comparing the Cardinals and Braves organizations. The poster did not say where they came from or when they were posted. If my memory serves me correctly, the comments were made right here last winter. Folks are out searching for previously flung mud to relaunch. That doesn’t change the fact that what was said was said in the public record, but it does reinforce my view that the current flap is not just about one issue, but more about something that has been building over time.

      • crdswmn says:

        Yes. It is a burning ember that the media and others keep stoking for their own purposes.

        • WestCoastbirdWatcher says:

          Bill DeWitt has went to extremes to cultivate the public perception of his activities. For profit reasons, he lives by these tenants………….. Tony has become very adept at playing this game with him………
          Suggesting that the media itself has “express” desires of its own, with any real powers seems a stretch………. they make access difficult for media elements that don’t serve their needs…….
          they reward certain individuals with “inside information” groomed to serve said needs (Strauss)……they don’t talk to Bernie much………and use Gordon as there mouth piece……………..

          There is a direct correlation between these practices, and the commercial value of a player……. they have to be very careful when extracting a popular player, at the same time depending on league scouting to reinforce a true estimation of the talents and abilities of said players, regardless of this extraction process …………………………that is the real reason Tony is playing hard……… he is lighting up bridges as fast as they can put them out………….there are quite a number that I wouldn’t trust to keep me dry should I be traveling that road myself…………… the trip back from Alabama appears to be fraught with complications…………..

        • Kansasbirdman says:

          It is exactly like the story Brian did on the “reporter” that hand-picked a few quotes from RC here a few weeks ago, creating controversy where none exists. Trying to create a story to sell.

    • Leebo says:

      It would be nice if the local media behaved more like a free press and less like a PR instrument to be strummed at TLR’s will. STLtoday has run a series of hit pieces. Have they even tried to talk with Colby or his father to get their take on the situation? Do they give them an opportunity to defend themselves? Maybe CR and RC understand that it they are in a no win situation and think it best to remain silent in face of this anti-colby propaganda. It would be easier to respect the local media if they at least pretended to get the whole story.

      • crdswmn says:

        I used being played like a piano, but strumming is a nice analogy too. 😉

        By the way there is a rumor tearing through the Scout message board, that Colby is being traded to Tampa Bay as we speak for person or persons unknown. Of course if it turns out to be true, the recent events have no connection whatsoever, right? 😛

    • CariocaCardinal says:

      Do you know for a fact that other clubs have a policy against outside help? would seem to be a union issue as well as unenforceable.

  3. Kansasbirdman says:

    I think everyones relationship with one’s parents is different and parrallels would be hard to draw, but good historical context to put some things in perspective Brian.
    On another note, could Keith Hernandez’s struggles be the cause of him spitting on Kramer and Newman by the gravely roe?

  4. Kansasbirdman says:

    Also, I only know about professional writing rules, but question Brian: Is there a journalism rule about quoting someone through a post on the internet without checking or confirming the source, and also without citing the location of the comments? How can a “journalist” grab a quote or partial quote out of context and then pass it off as if they interviewed the person. Have the rules of journalism caught up with the internet age? When you make it appear that a person has said one thing by distorting the quote it would seem ripe for a libel cause of action to me. Does any entity police such things?

    • Brian Walton says:

      Welcome to the wild, wild west.

    • jonseals says:

      I’m a journalist and I’m appalled at what passes for “journalism” these days.

      Most journalists can go a long way by attributing the source of a quote. “According to ______, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Three or four simple qualifying words and most publications will let writers officially get away with anything.

      Of course, most blogs and many publications can’t even follow these simple rules. Like Brian said, it’s the wild, wild west.

      BTW, great story, Brian. Hang in there, RC.

  5. crdswmn says:

    In case anyone is interested in the facts, Colby’s outside instruction is not coming from RC.

  6. friendmouse says:

    NL wins 4-3. Berkman contributes nicely. That’s all my crystal ball said…I ran out of quarters to feed into it. It also had some foggy pic of Colby in the 2012 AS game, but I couldn’t make out the insignia on his cap…low-def contrast on the image.

  7. CariocaCardinal says:

    Crswmn – did you see Augenstein cleared waivers. The bad part is that he wasn’t as desired as you thought. The good part is we get to keep him.

  8. Nutlaw says:

    Hernandez not only works as an in-game analyst, but is one of the very best out there without question!

  9. SkinnyPimp says:

    Nice article, Brian.

    By the way…Harry “The Hat” Walker? Sounds like a character from a Guy Ritchie movie!

    • Brian Walton says:

      Welcome and thanks, Skinny. Haven’t seen you around lately. Hope you hang around.

      You show your (lack of) age by not knowing about The Hat. He not only played for the Cards in the 1940s and 50s, but was also the player/manager of the Cards for part of the 1955 season. He managed the Pirates for three years in the 60s and the Astros from ’68-’72. He joined the Cards staff after leaving Houston. His brother Dixie was also a major leaguer.

      • blingboy says:

        At some point during the 1941 season two players wore the # 6 jersey. One was rookie Stan Musial, the other was Harry Walker, who had made his debut the previous season.

      • SkinnyPimp says:

        Thanks, Brian. Of course I’m in and out of the message board, posting occasionally, but reading daily. I’ve been reading the blog more and more lately, especially since I found an app for my iPhone that includes multiple Cardinal blogs, particularly yours of course!

        Thanks for the history lesson. I usually consider myself a solid student of Cardinal history, but admittedly, my knowledge going back into the ’40s & ’50s is somewhat limited. Of course that’s one of the things that keeps me coming back! I don’t know about Harry the Hat. I will have to ask my father about him. Although dad wasn’t born until ’50, I’m sure he will know about him. I don’t know if you are familiar with Guy Ritchie’s movies (Snatch; Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrells), but they are filled with characters with names like “Harry the Hatchet” and “Boris the Bullet-Dodger”. I know, I know…way off subject!

        Anyway, looking forward to posting more on the blog!

        • Brian Walton says:

          I am saddened by the fact that colorful baseball nicknames have about died out.

          The Cardinals don’t really have any except for Big Puma, which I consider unacceptable because Berkman gave himself the handle. After all, how sad is it that you have to come up with your own nickname? He did it to try to put “Fat Elvis” behind. I am guessing Milo Hamilton was not the one to have coined that label. I really liked blingboy’s “Fit Elvis” moniker for the 2011 Berkman.

          • Kansasbirdman says:

            There were some out there nicknames back in the day, think it was because it made radio broadcasts more interesting, and baseball more esoteric? Course it seems nicknames were pretty common in the culture vack then anyway, maybe because there wasn’t a huge variety of given names so it could be hard to tell folks apart. Nowadays we don’t try to be too clever with our words, and images sell products on tv as opposed to spokesmen/atheletes on the radio.
            Murderers row? That’s one I could do without anyway.
            We have some pretty knowledgeable and clever folks here on the blog, I bet we could get some monikers started into the mainstream, or at least the cardinal nation.

          • SkinnyPimp says:

            I’m not sure I ever heard that about Berkman giving himself the nickname Big Puma. I always thought “Fat Elvis” was a great nickname.

            These days, it seems most nicknames are either created by that person or it is some generic, bland play on their name and/or initials such as A-Rod, K-Rod, etc. Hey, at least we aren’t forced to sit through hours of Chris Berman’s nicknames on SportsCenter every night anymore!

            Now we have more eccentric things than nicknames; we have people like Nyjer Morgan giving himself an entirely different personality. Why settle for just another moniker when you can create a whole other person?!

        • Kansasbirdman says:

          Why do they call him the Bullet Dodger? Cause he dodges bullets Avi 🙂 classic

  10. WestCoastbirdWatcher says:

    Last nights truly classic display of prowess by the Cano’s, held much more intrigue on our current topic than you might guess………………. along with the Holiday/Molina debacle based on the Josh Hamilton myth………. it may make a good story…… however it may seem too pedantic for most……. let me know if anyone might be interested…………. I’m watching the game at this point…………

  11. Leebo says:

    Was Holliday limping?

  12. JumboShrimp says:

    Good article about the Hernandezes, father and son.
    To succeed in a highly competitive sport like baseball, you need great determination and you need teaching, both. Its no surprise many ML players were tutored and motivated by their Dads, for many years. Keith’s dad was a minor league player, Colby and Tony the same, and hotshot prospect Mike Trout with the Angels is the son of a minor leaguer.

    I don’t think the Cards actively want to trade Rasmus, no matter what his father has written. But the Cards are looking to strengthen their 2011 edition with a pitcher. And Tampa Bay has a lot of pitchers.

  13. blingboy says:

    Westy hasn’t commented on the ‘Selig wanted Pujols as All Star’ article. I’ve been waiting to see how it twists the plot.

    • WestCoastbirdWatcher says:

      Poor old Bud Selig………brown tweed suit (hasn’t been cleaned this year)…..a cigar sending a thin ribbon of smoke toward the the broken ceiling fan…..yes sir, just alone in his 5 floor office………. just another boring day at the office………..”hey, is anybody around….my coffee cup is empty”………….

      A little wok out in front BB, can be worth a bundle of money should he end up in a hearing someday. Hell, the guy barely has a care ……………

      • WestCoastbirdWatcher says:

        I got to thinking BB…………..Buddy is probably working at his witness stand persona for the LA bankruptcy trial………….. kind of an Atticus Finch…………Walter Brennan thing………… and here he’s giving Prince a crystal bat…………..what a guy………….

  14. WestCoastbirdWatcher says:

    That was ugly ………. that was his favorite pitch ……………….. Must have been looking for something…….with a full count…..and Berkman on the run………… should have been Albert.

  15. WestCoastbirdWatcher says:

    Prince is just going to be a nightmare for Pujols dream of empire………….. God is truly mysterious………………………….ain’t he……………

    • friendmouse says:

      HIS ways are not our ways.

      I’m getting a refund on the crystal ball…got the winner right but blew the score…probably made in China….China / crystal…goes well with the silver flatware and cloth napkins.

      • WestCoastbirdWatcher says:

        good question……….they are a better team at this point…………he will feed there……..NY is a graveyard………………….I thought the H Bell show was just made for St. Louis……….. thats looks more like at this moment……… me …………… Cordero is in trouble in Cinnci………they might force a move…………

        • crdswmn says:

          There is a certain school of opinion that the KRod trade puts pressure on the Cardinals to up the ante on acquiring Heath Bell. Of course given recent events, the unwashed masses are screaming for a Colby for Bell trade. I stand by my opinion that we need LOOGYS more than we need a closer.

          • WestCoastbirdWatcher says:

            It would be an encouragement to the starters…………if they aim for 6……..the will most often get there.

            The Brewers can now shorten their starts………… thats big late in the season……..when the mileage is showing……….

    • T8Ball says:

      Okay, I’ll take a nibble ~ committing nearly 7million AAV to Jaime “might” make it “tougher” to give Colby $3-4 million next season in his 1st Arb season.

      That might be how some will try and spin it. I can see that point 1)being made and 2)having merit.

      KMac is due for a raise from his first Arb year. He’s performed better than his 1.375million he’s receiving this season. Then factor in Yadi, Waino, Carp, Albert, Berkman possible FA, and Skip’s & Riots pending Arb. There might not be any room in the “inn” so to speak. Again, I’m just throwing out a possible spin.

      Plus factor in the “Win it now” philosophy………

      • T8Ball says:

        It certainly could add credence to Westcoasts “clever timing by the Org……..”

      • CariocaCardinal says:

        all those salaries have been known since the previous off season (McClellen’s might have bumped up slightly due to moving to being a starter). Garcia isn’t getting any more next season under this deal than he would have got in arbitration. No special timing that changed anything here.

  16. Kansasbirdman says:

    I think this is still timely and related to your article Brian. Just goes to show that some of the media are out to spin stories to get the most bang for one’s buck and how the CR/RC narrative could play differently given different timing or circumstances:

    with our reality tv mentality what plays is the narrative and how the drama can be stoked.

    • Kansasbirdman says:

      And I am not trying to make generalizations about the “media” (I am one of those people who refers to “The Media” as plural as there are many types of Media) because I know that it is unfair to generalize and stereotype a certain profession or groups of a profession.
      I just wanted to say that in some cases, when $ is the goal or directive, it leads to bad product. That is one reason I enjoy your fact based approach and seeming desire to drive good discussion.

  17. crdswmn says:

    Strauss is still telling people that the Cardinals are shopping Colby to Tampa Bay despite Mo’s denial. Does that mean A) Mo is a liar; or B) Strauss likes to hear himself talk and is a pompous toad. Your thoughts.

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