Keith Hernandez: High Expectations, Low Rewards

In 1979, Cardinals first baseman Keith Hernandez shared National League Most Valuable Player honors with Willie Stargell, leading the league with a .344 batting average

Four years later, he was dealt to the Mets, his cocaine use becoming a distraction in the Cardinals’ clubhouse – and ultimately leading to his testimony in front of a Pittsburgh grand jury, which led to the baseball drug trials.

Hernandez, who was sanctioned by Major League Baseball and quit using drugs, became a face of the franchise in Queens, leading the Mets to a World Championship in 1986 and an NL East title in 1988. But after the 1989 season, where he only played 75 games due to a broken kneecap, the Mets didn’t re-sign the 11-time Gold Glove winner.

He piqued the Indians’ interest. Tribe first baseman Pete O’Brien was also a free agent after the 1989 season, so the Indians made an offer to Hernandez. Free agency hadn’t been particularly good to the Indians, but with Hank Peters, a proven success at talent evaluation from his time in Baltimore, as the new general manager, big things were expected.

O’Brien ended up signing a four-year deal with the Mariners, and on Dec. 7, 1989, the five-time all-star made it official, signing with the Indians for a two-year, $3.5 million contract.

“Keith Hernandez brings a lot of intangibles to a ballclub,” Peters was quoted as saying in the Plain Dealer. “He’s a winning type of player.”

Hernandez had spurned a $6 million offer to play in Japan and was looking for a chance to play daily. He was feeling optimistic about the Indians, saying they reminded him of the Mets when he got there in 1983 – a team with young talent on the cusp of great things.

As it turned out, he was right – but he wasn’t around to see it.

Hernandez appeared in 43 games for the Indians, hitting just one home run and clawing his way up to a .200 batting average before injuries took their toll. In 1991, Hernandez was back for spring training, but a herniated disc requiring surgery spelled the end of his Indians career – and his days as a pro baseball player in general.

Hernandez remains a legend in New York City, and still calls Mets games. He’s also fondly remembered in St. Louis, helping the team to its 1982 World Series win. But in Cleveland, he’s another in a string of bad free-agent signings.

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