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Captain Keith led Mets' revival

Captain Keith led Mets' revival

NEW YORK -- The "Buckner Game" was almost 48 hours gone, and the Red Sox had given every indication they had recovered from the horror of it. They had defied Shea Stadium, an uninvited parachutist and Ron Darling, and 5 1/2 innings into Game 7, they led, 3-0. The final 12 outs would be challenging; they knew that. And when the Mets loaded the bases with one out in the sixth, they suspected the challenge had arrived.

A conversation in the visiting dugout turned to the ensuing batter, and the dugout squirmed. Years later, then-Red Sox pitching coach Bill Fischer related the moment to that batter. He told Keith Hernandez, "We knew if we got past you, we'd win the World Series."

The Mets won the 1986 World Series, of course. An inning before Series MVP Ray Knight provided the back-breaker, Hernandez produced the ice-breaker, a single over shortstop that produced the Mets' first two runs and reconfirmed the "Here we come" message the Sox already had received. And after Knight's leadoff home run and a single by Rafael Santana had put the Mets' lead at two runs in the seventh, Hernandez hit a sacrifice fly to provide what proved to be the decisive run in the clinching 8-5 victory.

If Hernandez had experienced a more scintillating sequence of success in his six-plus seasons as Shea's seminal citizen, it doesn't readily come to mind; not that there weren't other instances when he asserted himself or witnessed colleagues creating history.

He was merely yards away when Jesse Orosco heaved his glove toward the heavens, on base when Darryl Strawberry redirected Game 3 of the '86 NLCS, and in the dugout when Lenny Dykstra won it. And he was in the manager's office, the tape off his fingers, a beer in his belly and another in his hand, when history bounced through Buckner's legs.

He had watched from close proximty as Dwight Gooden morphed from phenom to phenomenon. He watched Strawberry hit baseballs over buildings and Howard Johnson go 30-30. He saw Gary Carter put the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame career. Moreover, he won the last six of his 11 Gold Gloves during his Mets tenure and earned more MVP points than any National League player from 1984 through 1988.

Hernandez made himself, arguably, the most valuable player in the history of the franchise, before and after the club affixed the captain's "C" to his uniform shirt.

And the greatest moment Keith Hernandez ever witnessed at Shea Stadium had nothing to do with him or any other active player. Go figure.

Farewell Shea Stadium

An honor that somehow has eluded Hernandez was afforded Tom Seaver in 1988. Seaver's uniform number was retired; his 41 was put in mothballs. And the ceremony that surrounded that salute is what Hernandez embraces 20 years later.

"The greatest thing I've ever seen at Shea," is how he identifies it. It moved him, and it had stayed with him.

"Tom was so eloquent in what he said," Hernandez recalled recently. "And when he did what he did -- take off his jacket, throw one last pitch and then bow to the crowd -- it was so appropriate, and appreciated by the fans. They went crazy.

"You saw how important he was to them. He was The Franchise, great nickname. Again, so appropriate. It really touched me."

There are those who had similar regard for Hernandez and what he meant to the Mets' teams of 1983-89. He was the Seaver for those teams, providing credibility after seemingly endless seasons of losing. In truth, the Mets' first winning season came in 1969, after seven seasons of finishing last or next to last. The Mets reversed their fortunes in 1984, as well, also after seven dreadful seasons. Hernandez had arrived in June 1983, in the middle of Seaver's return season.

"Some of what we all experienced in '69, I saw happening again after Keith joined us that year," Seaver said. "We began to take ourselves more seriously. It brought back feelings I had when we began to assert ourselves in 1969. We didn't win a lot, but there was a sense that we would, and there was a reward in winning that we hadn't really understood. I know Keith made a difference then.

"He had a wonderful run here, too -- a very influential player. Do they turn it around if he doesn't come? I'm not sure. I just know how different it was after he got here."

Hubie Brooks and Mookie Wilson, products of the Mets' Minor League system, always have credited Hernandez with steering the Mets in their 1983-84 U-turn.

"As an infielder, you just feel more confident with him over there," Brooks, the third baseman, said in 1983. "Before he came over, if I made a good play on a ground ball, I'd say 'Oh, no! Now I have to make the perfect throw.' Now, I make the play and just throw it. He'll catch it. ... He doesn't make you play better, he allows you to play better."

And Wilson noticed how much more competitive the team became in the second half of '83.

"We still were losing, but the games were closer," he said the day Hernandez was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame. "We were in more of them. Keith made such a difference. He was such a good and smart player -- he was so smart. And so intense, that rubbed off on the rest of us. We already were sick of all the losing, but he made us focus on winning. We learned about winning when he joined us and then we brought in all that talent -- Doc and Darryl, Howard, all that pitching.

"You know I wasn't here to see how Seaver influenced his teammates, but I'm guessing the two of them -- he and Keith -- had the same kind of impact."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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