Los Angeles — The name Keith Hernandez of the St. Louis Cardinals strikes the same kind of fear in National League pitchers that Count Dracula once stirred up among the residents of Transylvania. They would just as soon he took his bats and his business elsewhere.
In addition to sharing last year's MVP honors with Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell (although Keith was the only player named on all 24 ballots), he also led the majors in hitting with a .344 average, in doubles with 48, and in runs scored with 116.
Throw in a Gold Glove Award at first base; 210 hits; 105 runs batted in; and a slugging percentage of .513 and you've got the English-Scottish-Spanish extraction of Casey at the Bat. Only this guy is a little tougher to strike out.
Even though the left-handed Hernandez has always been a tough out with men on base, he really didn't begin to hit right- handers as if he owned them until last year, when he moved farther away from home plate.
Instead of getting jammed by so many inside strikes, Keith began turning those swings into base hits. His longest dry spell in the batter's box last year was four games! And he hit better than .400 against Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Diego.
"Whenever I'm in a batting slump that I can't seem to break, I always call my Dad," Hernandez told me in the visitors' dugout at Dodger Stadium. "Nobody knows me better than he does, and when he makes a suggestion he's just never wrong.
"One of the things we have at home is a video tape recorder," he continued. "My wife tapes all of the Cardinals' TV games and then mails the cassettes to my Dad. My wife does this even when I'm going well, so that most of the time my Dad is as current on me as I am."
Hernandez's father is a former minor league player who might have made the majors if it hadn't been for two damaging injuries. Instead, he became a San Francisco fireman who used most of his days off to teach his boys the finer points of baseball.
"I owe my father a lot because he was always creating situations in practice that were certain to come up in games," Keith explained. "If we didn't respond properly to a given situation -- if we threw to the wrong base, for instance -- my father would immediately stop everything and correct us. He had a way of teaching so that you never forgot what he said."
Although Hernandez is plenty big enough to be a power hitter (6 feet and 195 pounds), he prefers to wear out the alleys between the outfielders.
"Some guys have a built-in swing for the long ball, but I don't," Keith said. "Basically I'm a line drive hitter who sprays the ball around and whose extra base hits are usually doubles.
"I hit 48 doubles last season and 32 the year before, and doubles usually mean a sure RBI with men on base," he continued. "It also leaves me in a position to score. Oh, I'll surprise myself occasionally and hit a home run, but the long ball is not what I'm all about."
Asked more about his hitting philosophy, Hernandez replied: "Well, I've come to the conclusion that the way a person stands at the plate doesn't mean a thing. The important part of hitting doesn't begin until you start to come out of that stance. If you can develop a level swing, you're going to get your share of base hits.
"As I look back now, I think it took me about three years to understand what hitting in the big leagues was all about," he continued. "After a while, if you've got the physical tools, you just begin to feel more comfortable at the plate. then you suddenly begin to know what pitchers like to do in certain situations, and a lot of guesswork goes out of hitting the ball."
Hernandez, despite his batting title and co-MVP award, is still a .200 hitter in the publicity department. People who think of the Cardinals invariably think first of flamboyant shortstop Garry Templeton or catcher Ted Simmons, two of the best switch-hitters in baseball.
But Keith is generally a lot tougher than either of them with runners on base.