The Mets franchise was forever changed on June 15, 1983. On that date, the Mets took a chance by obtaining Keith Hernandez from the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey. We may not see it like that now, but it was a risk.
He was only available due to his clashes with Whitey Herzog, and many expected after the season he was just going to demand his way out of New York. After all, he was very clearly and publicly not happy with being traded to the Mets. And yet, Frank Cashen and the Mets did all they could do to convince Hernandez to stay.
With Hernandez staying, the Mets got a Gold Glover at first. That’s understating it a bit. People, including opposing teams, said you couldn’t even bunt on him. The Mets took advantage of his strong and accurate arm by having him handle relays. In sum, Hernandez was the best defensive first baseman of all-time, and he would win five Gold Gloves with the Mets; six if you include his 1983 season split between the Mets and the Cardinals.
More than the glove and the bat in the middle of the lineup, Hernandez was undoubtedly the leader of the Mets. His experience, especially his World Series experience, not only gave him the credibility in the clubhouse, but it also allowed him to help the Mets realize their potential and to believe they could be great.
That started almost immediately with the Mets shocking baseball by improving 22 games and by being in first place entering August. This would be the first of five straight 90+ win seasons and seven straight seasons of finishing in second place or better. Over that time, Hernandez finished in the top 10 in MVP voting three times including a second place finish in 1984.
While he was the consummate leader of those teams, eventually leading to his being named the first team captain in 1987, we really saw his leadership at the forefront in 1986, the year the Mets won the World Series. It should be noted it was during this year he was voted as an All-Star starter for the only time in his career, and he would lead the league in walks.
Hernandez may not have had a lot of hits in that series, but he made sure to have an impact. After the Mets dropped Game 1 of the NLCS to Mike Scott and the Astros, he responded with a two RBI game. His next RBI in the series wouldn’t come until Game 6, but it was one of the most important hits in Mets history.
Down 3-0 in the ninth and facing a Game 7 against Scott, something each Mets player feared, the Mets had a furious ninth inning rally to tie the score. In that furious rally, Hernandez hit an RBI double scoring Mookie Wilson to pull the Mets within one. Later that inning, he’d score the tying run on a Ray Knight sacrifice fly.
That wasn’t his most noted impact on this game. In this back-and-forth game with the Mets blowing a 14th inning lead and their about to blow a three run 16th inning lead, Hernandez went to the mound to demand Gary Carter not call a fastball or that Jesse Orosco not throw another to Kevin Bass. Orosco would strike out Bass on a curve to win the pennant.
In the 1986 World Series, there are two events for which Hernandez was most known. The first was in Game 6. After flying out in the 10th, he went to the dugout as he could not bear to see the Red Sox celebrate at Shea Stadium. As the rally took off, he refused to move from his seat as there were hits in it, and he was not going to move until the Mets won the game.
His next moment was in Game 7. Many forget it, but the Mets were actually down 3-0 in that game heading into the bottom of the sixth. The Mets didn’t break through until Hernandez delivered the Mets first RBI of that game:
In that World Series clinching game, Hernandez had three RBI. With that, Hernandez fulfilled the promise of what everyone believed would happen under his leadership – the Mets were World Series champions. While he was not the best or most talented, he was the one who helped lead the Mets to that championship.
That 1986 season was his second best in a Mets uniform. Unfortunately, from there, he would start to decline. Notably, in that decline, he made another All-Star team, and he won two more Gold Gloves. He would also help lead the Mets to the 1988 NL East title. Unfortunately, the Mets would lose that series, and Hernandez would have his own Willie Mays moment, but in the end, the Mets never get there without their fearless leader.
He was so beloved a figure, even after his departure, that David Cone switched his number from 44 to 17 when Hernandez left. To this day, fans clamor for his number to be retired.
Through it all, Hernandez is the best defensive first baseman in baseball history, and he is the Mets best ever first baseman. He was the first captain, and he is probably the greatest leader in team history. He is currently serving as the bridge from the greatness of the Mets past to the present. He will go down as one of the most important figures in team history, and he is definitively the best Mets player to ever wear the number 17.
3. Curtis Granderson
4. Lenny Dykstra
5. David Wright
6. Wally Backman
7. Jose Reyes
8. Gary Carter
9. Todd Hundley
10. Rey Ordonez
11. Wayne Garrett
12. John Stearns
13. Edgardo Alfonzo
14. Gil Hodges
15. Carlos Beltran
16. Dwight Gooden