NEW YORK – About an hour before addressing a packed house in City Field, a focused Keith Hernandez looked at his index card in a mostly empty interview room with in-depth study – his older brother was just a step away.
Always ready, always supportive. Always with Gary.
Hernandez, the rock-studded leader for the New York Mets’ previous championship team, received a rare honor on Saturday when the club retired his 17th jersey before the game against the Miami Marlins.
“It’s just a great moment for me. I never dreamed I would be in the organization for so long, “Hernandez said from the platform between the pitcher’s pile and the second floor. “I am absolutely humble and proud that my number will be on the roof forever.”
Moments later, the No. 17 in blue with orange trim was unveiled in a left-field corner with the City Field roof, to the left of No. 36, who retired last year for pitcher Jerry Cosman.
Hall of Famers Tom Sever (41) and Mike Piazza (31) are the only other Mets players to have retired from the team. Former managers Casey Stengel (37) and Gill Hodges (14) were also honored.
“I thank you,” Hernandez, 68, now a popular Mets broadcaster, told a crowd of 43,336 cheering and chanting during the 30-minute ceremony. “I’m really overwhelmed.”
A favorite of the Mets fans on the field and in the booth, Hernandez spent seven of his 17 major league seasons in 1983-89 in New York and finished third for the 1986 World Series Champion.
The following year, he was selected as the first captain in the club’s history.
Hernandez is second in the Mets Annals with a batting average of .297 and 10th in the RBI. He won six of his 11 gold gloves team records at first base in New York and was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame in 1997.
“He practically rewrote the manual on how to play base first,” said longtime Mets radio announcer Howie Rose. “He didn’t just play first base, he did it – a virtue.”
After the ceremony, Hernandez threw the first ball to his brother Gary, who caught it by Mitt Hernandez, the first baseman he wore in the latter part of the ’86 season.
Hours before the game, fans in jersey number 17 named Hernandez stood in a long line waiting for the gate to open.
Wearing a blue suit, Hernandez said he had been awake since 3:40 a.m. after receiving a message from someone in a different time zone. Unable to sleep because of his speech, he began to write at about half past seven
“Hopefully, if I don’t break, I’ll cross it in five minutes,” Hernandez said.
Tears welled up in his eyes as he recounted the glowing comments he had read about his family and former teammates in his characteristic stories until his big day.
Thanks to his personal broadcast style and his captivating presence in “Seinfeld” and elsewhere, many fans of the Mets feel Hernandez’s unique relationship. He tells stories of home improvements, shares bubbly photos of his cat, Haji, and talks about his long, traffic-filled ride to and from his Sag Harbor home on the Long Island Expressway.
A recorded congratulatory message from Jerry Seinfeld in the middle of the first inning rang on a large video board in the middle of the field.
Hernandez credited the advice of Reverend Brother Gary for hitting some of his clutches in the Mets’ uniform, which blew his left hand into the air as he became acquainted with about a dozen members of Hernandez’s family. Three daughters and two grandchildren.
“He was always my lucky one,” Keith Hernandez said.
Hernandez has been broadcasting the Mets Games since 1999 and has won three Emmy for Best Sports Analyst. Bobbleheads, assigned Saturday at City Field, showed Hernandez holding a microphone at the broadcast desk with his familiar salt-and-pepper mustache.
“Keith connects with Mets fans in a way that some other people do,” Rose said.
Hernandez was presented as a gift by owner Steve Cohen and manager Buck Schulter – a large mosaic picture of 6,000 Keith Hernandez baseball cards and 1986 straight-o-matic game cards of Mets players.
Piazza was present for the ceremony along with some of Hernandez’s former Mets colleagues, including Mookie Wilson, Tim Tufel, Ed Lynch and Ron Darling – now they are also TV broadcast partners.
Hernandez also won the 1982 World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals and was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. The Mets bought him in a landmark trade in June 1983, accused of leading a team change that had been laughing for years and teaching them to win their growing young talent.
Ready for such a role in the Hall of Famer Lou Brock in St. Louis, Hernandez did just that – instead in Queens.
“I’m a fiery player,” said Hernandez, who was initially unhappy about the trade.
“Did I know? Life and career changing events.”