Keith HernandezNovember 23, 2009
This is what it looks like to want the ball to be hit to you. I have never been able to strike a similar attitude of passionate readiness and willingness to engage, either in baseball or any other sport or life itself. I do come to the desk pretty much every day to write or try to write, but even a good writing day starts out with me taking my position with trepidation, afraid that the ball is going to take a bad bounce and punch me in the mouth.
This photo is no fluke, either. Keith Hernandez played first base as well as anyone ever has, and a key part of that excellence was his unusually aggressive style of manning what has for most of baseball history been the most passive position on the field, the place where large, slow sluggers are pastured to stand around until it’s time to lumber a few feet to their left to catch throws from other more able fielders. By contrast, Hernandez, as can be seen here, played first with an itchy impatience, as if he wanted to sprint forward and throw himself on line drives fresh off the bat like a Green Beret hurling himself on the barrel of a grenade launcher.
The odd thing about this card is that, absent the crackling aura of intense attack-readiness, I’d be tempted to theorize that the Topps people put the wrong player photo on Keith Hernandez’ card. The iconically mustachioed future household figure (“I’m Keith Hernandez”) seems to have nothing to do with the lean-faced thin-lipped mouth-breather here. If his shoulder-length hair and vaguely neanderthalic features had been presented in a pose less suggestive of the spectacular fielding talents of Keith Hernandez, I would have wondered if the otherwise drab mid-1970s Cardinals had embarked on some sort of experiment to clone their top player, Ted Simmons, the lank-haired catcher who throughout the 1970s looked like he’d come for his Topps baseball card photo shoot directly from huffing carbona and listening to Black Sabbath eight-tracks out by the abandoned paper mill, if not from killing a saber tooth tiger with a spear.
If the Cardinals did try such an ungodly experiment, they abandoned it by the early 1980s, not only ridding themselves of the thick-browed (but highly able and surprisingly erudite) Simmons and his somewhat suspect glove but also stripping Keith Hernandez and the rest of the team of any physical attributes that would have made them seem at home in animal-skin togas in a natural history museum diorama. Thusly purged, the Cardinals became one of the great fielding teams of all time, anchored by the man shown here.
Would it be stretching things too much to say that Hernandez was an innovator at first base? My sense is that some other earlier players manned the position with great quickness and agility (Hal Chase, Vic Power, Wes Parker, etc.), and they may have even shared Hernandez’ aggressive strategy of attacking grounders. But since I’ve been paying attention, Hernandez certainly stands out (though during Hernandez’ career Don Mattingly eventually joined him as a slick, attacking first baseman).
I think that a lot of the greatest fielders have been innovators, playing the position a different way than it had been previously played. The innovation most often seems to be to play the position less passively than whatever norm was current. To charge forward and attack rather than waiting and reacting. I can think of three other all-time great fielders who also are considered to have brought something unusual to the playing of their position, and the innovation was always aimed at getting to the action quicker. Anybody got any thoughts about these initial choices for the all-innovator team? Anybody got any other choices for other positions? Think of somebody who not only played the position better than most, but played it differently than it had previously been played. (Players in italics have been suggested by readers in the comments below.)
C-Johnny Bench; Tony Pena
SS-Dave Concepcion; Cal Ripken; Rey Ordonez
3B-Jimmy Collins. Regarded as the first guy to start charging bunts; Brooks Robinson; Graig Nettles
LF-Carl Yastrzemski. Before him, it was unusual for an outfielder to charge in and grab grounders with just the glove (i.e., not with two hands).
CF-Tris Speaker. Positioned himself very shallow, daring hitters to try to hit it over his head; Willie Mays