359 – Keith Hernandez: Talent & Obsession (A Formula for Grit)

 

If you Google a baseball player, ANY professional baseball player, the first result is always the same:

Stats.

There’s someone somewhere in some office with a Ph.D. in statistics who would say, “Oh, this guy’s a .256. Send him home.”

That’s what happened to Keith Hernandez, before he became two-time World Series champion.

Success came early. But it was also taken away…

“Did you have a plan B?” I asked.

“I had no plan B,” he said. “To this day I don’t know what I would’ve done if I didn’t make it. I had a high school education. And I was a good student, but I didn’t want to go back to college.”

And he didn’t.

“I was the best in my area,” he said.

Keith was 18 when the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him to the minor leagues. He wrote about it in his new memoir, “I’m Keith Hernandez.” He got a $30K signing bonus, which was unheard of at the time for a 42nd-round draft pick.

“I got off to a terrible start. I was a hot head,” Keith said.

He’d “accidently” kick dirt into someone’s face. And the managers would witness it. But, somehow, he kept getting moved up.

So I asked him, “Why did the coaches think you were more talented than anybody else spread across all the minor leagues?”

“They saw that I had the desire to succeed,” he said.

“OK, but how’d they see that?”

“I worked hard. I did everything I was supposed to do. And I wasn’t lazy. They saw the will. The drive. And the desire to succeed. They’re looking around to see who has a little extra.”

So he moved up a level.

And he did OK. He bat a .256. Which meant he had room to improve.

So instead of getting bumped down, the manager for the Cardinals moved him up.

I think this was such a critical turning point. Every new skill or job or relationship has a point where it’s either going to break or get stronger. You’re going to move up or begin to lose footing. Keith had coaches. They saw his potential and took him there. I think that helps a lot with confidence. But it can also backfire…

“I had a bad season. It was up and down,” Keith said.

In just 10 days, his average plummeted. His career was in danger.

But somehow, he moved up again.

One of his managers called him up the next highest level in the minors—triple A. Keith said, “It turned my career around. If it wasn’t for this one coach, if it was up to the analytics, they might have sent me down. And I’d have been finished.”

Keith showed grit. And the decision-makers noticed.

He made it to the major leagues just two years out of high school.

And then he got benched.

“I cried when I went home. I felt humiliated. I felt like I failed,” he said. “I wasn’t emotionally ready. It’s kind of daunting.”

“Were you scared?”

“I wasn’t scared. Let’s just say I was timid. I didn’t have the confidence. I’m 20 years old and all of a sudden I look up and there’s Tom Siever. There’s Steve Carlton. There’s Don Sutton. And I wasn’t ready for it.”

It sounded so emotional. I think it’s easy to look at these peak performers and just assume they’re doing great all the time. I felt lucky to be getting this inside look at a champion.

I asked Keith if he felt like his career was over. “After moving up and getting a shot at the majors and then getting pushed back down to the minors, how did you feel?”

“I was shaken, but I wasn’t going to quit.”

He went back to the minors. Killed it. And was called back up to majors.

They put him through all this hell. But Keith said it was about performance. And potential.

“If they’d have kept me up, I’d have been destroyed. I was not going to come out of this. I needed to go back down for more seasoning.”

Nobody’s a peak performer 100% of the time. Success is not linear.

Keith returned to the majors and that’s where he stayed. The rest is history. He went on to win two World Series titles. One for the St. Louis Cardinals and one for the New York Mets.

He built a Hall of Fame-level career.

Then he retired.

“My skills were diminishing. I was embarrassed. I knew I was finished. And that’s a hard pill to swallow. The athlete is always the last one to realize that it’s over,” Keith said.

He left the game. He was 37. And he didn’t watch a game for years.

It sounds like a sad ending. A champion who leaves it all behind and becomes what?

An Emmy Award-winning sports broadcaster? Yes.

An author? Yes.

He’s a legend living beyond the stats.

 

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