ORIGINAL PUBLICATION DATE: June 2005
At some point this summer, Roberto Hernandez will make his way back out to Brooklyn's Parade Grounds or Marine Park, park himself on a set of aluminum bleachers, and watch some of tomorrow's rising baseball talents slug it out on the fields he used to rule.
A big league veteran since 1991, it will not be the first time the 40-year-old Hernandez has made his way out to the scene of his past glories. However, it will be the first time he does so representing the Mets, the team he grew up rooting for as a youngster in 1970s New York.
That's right, mention the names Wayne Garrett, Ken Boswell or George Stone in the bowels of Shea Stadium, and at least one Mets player won't look at you quizzically. With John Franco and Al Leiter having left the club, it's probably a good thing to have at least one person left in the clubhouse who can serve as an authority on team history.
"I grew up as a Met fan, point blank," Hernandez said. "I rooted for the Mets for a long time. At this point in my career, I never thought I'd have a chance to come over here and play.
"It's a dream come true. Kind of late, but better late than never."
After making 63 appearances for the Phillies last season, going 3-5 with a 4.76 ERA, Hernandez â who has also played for the White Sox, Giants, Devil Rays, Royals and Braves in a 13-year big league career â found himself prepared to find a new uniform once more.
He briefly negotiated with Mets GM Omar Minaya before agreeing to a minor league contract on Jan. 18, with nothing guaranteed but the possibility of opening eyes during spring training.
Hernandez wound up doing more than that. Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson reviewed tapes of Hernandez's 2004 appearances with Philadelphia and was pleased to see that Hernandez was still as strong as he had been the last few years.
It wasn't uncommon to see the reliever pumping fastballs into the strike zone near the mid-90s, and Hernandez averaged 6.99 strikeouts per nine innings, so clearly velocity wasn't the reason that Hernandez was having his share of struggles.
No, the problem came down to a simple matter of location and an accompanying tweak in mechanics. Peterson has received some heat in the press recently, mostly due to the struggles of starting pitcher Victor Zambrano, but Hernandez had no trouble assimilating Peterson's suggestions into his repertoire, with good results.
"Rick got my arm, my hand and my glove moving at the same time," Hernandez explains. "I'd been stiff in my midsection the last two years, so this gives me some motion as I move forward to the plate. That's really what he wanted to get done this spring, and that's basically been the key.
"Right now, everything's feeling pretty good mechanically. I'm sound. It all boils down to the hard work we did in spring training and all the time Rick has put in."
The changes helped make a New York homecoming for Hernandez - who grew up at the corner of 87th St. and Columbus Ave. in Manhattan - that much sweeter. He did not allow a run in nine of his first ten appearances as a Met, striking out 14 batters in nine innings.
A good run: Hernandez said he'd experienced starts like that "once or twice" before in his career, but said he hadn't felt this good to open a year since his 43-save season as the Tampa Bay closer in 1999.
He credits the Mets' infield defense â especially first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, who is staking his claim toward a potential Gold Glove award â in part for his success.
"I know as a group here, they want us to continually pound the strike zone down," Hernandez said. "You've got to be able to rely on your infielders to make plays, and they've done it. Of course they're going to make a mistake once in a while, but they're going to save us more than they'll hurt us."
Hernandez said that the Mets as a whole "don't have the most talented team, but we've got one of the scrappiest teams," which keeps him flashing back to those days on the dusty, worn sandlots of Brooklyn.
When Hernandez was a youth, there were no organized clubs near his Manhattan neighborhood. The future 1986 first-round pick of the Angels got most of his baseball schooling done at the Chelsea Vocational School, where he attended classes and played ball for three years, and in travel-team leagues that called the Parade Grounds and Marine Park home.
Among Hernandez' teammates from those years: former major league infielders Shawon Dunston and Alex Arias, one-time big league hurlers Frankie Rodriguez and Luis de los Santos, and current Devil Rays shortstop Julio Lugo.
"We grew up together, we all played together," Hernandez said. "There's a common thread. There's good baseball down there."
Unfortunately, in this age of surging 'soccer moms' and inner-city hoops, Hernandez sees baseball suffering a hit in the eyes of the nation's top athletes. Part of the problem is undoubtedly the expense it takes to field a baseball team; acquiring gloves, bats, uniforms and balls all cost exponentially more than the demands of carrying a basketball to a concrete playground.
New sports of popularity like roller hockey and lacrosse have also helped to push baseball to the back of the playlists for many kids, which is part of the reason Hernandez has already plotted out his upcoming appearances to urge on the ballplayers of tomorrow.
Representing the Mets, Hernandez believes he can offer living proof that the dream can come true â that children on the sandlots of New York City can one day progress to the clubhouses at Shea and Yankee Stadiums.
"Baseball is America's game," Hernandez said. "Some cases there, there's parents that push kids too much, and then you push them out of the game. You've got to let them grow to be kids and then they make their own decision. In my mind, baseball is still my favorite sport and will always be my favorite sport."