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.