Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

It was near midnight on Tumbleweed Tuesday, the name East Enders give the day after Labor Day, when they reclaim their towns from seasonal visitors.

But one celebrity resident was just returning home from work, a commuter completing another long ride from the big city and trying to stay sane by checking off a dozen milestones on his 86-mile slog.

"It does bother me,'' Keith Hernandez said, somewhere in the dark monotony of the LIE's outer reaches, during the 90 minutes (if he's lucky) journey from Citi Field. "It gets tiresome.''

Eventually, though, it was over, and he reminded himself why he endures it.

At 1 a.m., as he walked Duncan, his beloved, 90-pound flat-coated retriever, around his neighborhood just outside Sag Harbor, Hernandez looked around and said, "This is a little slice of heaven.''

It is a slice he has carved for himself at 55, the formerly hard-playing, hard-partying leader of the 1986 Mets now happily married to his second wife, Kai, and happily living a small-town life.

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When he pulled onto Main Street Wednesday to visit his favorite coffee shop, Java Nation, it was as if he had planted eclectic local characters as props to impress a visiting reporter. It was real, though.

Hernandez - 1979 National League co-MVP, star of an iconic "Seinfeld'' episode, popular SNY analyst - is used to passers-by saying hello to him. But within two minutes of arriving in Sag Harbor, he had said hello by name to a half-dozen people.

"We can be normal here,'' Kai said.

That's relative, of course. Hernandez prides himself on living in a home of modest proportions - "These people who buy mansions, I don't understand that; they are nuts'' - and on going to the hardware store and doing his own repairs. But he's still Keith Hernandez.

Much as he enjoys the blue-collar vibe of the year-round residents, he is not quite one of them, staying only from April through September. He spends the rest of the year in Florida.

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Hernandez, long divorced from his first wife and with three adult daughters (and two grandchildren, the second born last weekend), was a committed Manhattanite from 1984 until several years ago.

The nudge East came from Duncan, named for the King of Scotland in "Macbeth.'' The big dog needed space, and his family didn't mind going far to find it with Hernandez then working a limited schedule for MSG. Kai had owned a cottage on the East End and liked the area.

"There was no SNY then,'' Keith said. "I had no idea I would have a full-time job.''

Now he works 105 games a season, about half at home. (He stays in the city when a day game follows a night game.)

Hernandez passes the miles listening to political talk radio, and sometimes sports, especially Steve Somers' opening monologue on WFAN.

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Usually, he turns it off once the callers chime in. "Unless it's a night when Mets fans are just ready to jump off a bridge,'' he said. "I have to laugh, because they're just so into it.''

(Hernandez admits preferring that the Mets win, too. But he tries to stay "detached'' from the day-to-day emotions of a fan.)

Mostly, he keeps to 80 mph or less in a Mercedes built to go far faster and studies the psychology of LIE exit numbers.

"Seventy, 60, 50, those are my marks,'' he said, referring to the round numbers as the exits fly by. "The distances between 70 through 50 are much longer, so as you go from 50 to 40 to 30 they get tighter and it seems faster. Going back out east it's like forever on 50, then forever on 60.''

Relief from the tedium comes at the home he shares with Kai, Duncan, three cats and robust collections of books, bobbleheads, vintage movie posters, 19th century firearms and art, as well as baseball treasures such as his MVP award.

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The highlights include two mosaics made by his late father, John, from pebbles Keith and his brother collected on Pebble Beach when they were kids growing up in the San Francisco Bay area and there still were pebbles there.

His hundreds of leather-bound, gold-accented classic books come with a personal twist. Some include inserts summarizing their contents. It turns out Kai wrote many of them for a part-time job during graduate school in the mid-1980s - long before she and Keith met.

"It's all come full circle,'' said Kai, a freelance pastry chef who sells to local stores and who whips up homemade cake and ice cream just for fun. (Keith would like to lose 20 pounds. Good luck.)

Hernandez, still adjusting to Eastern Time after a recent road swing, didn't bound out of bed and into the kitchen until 9 Wednesday morning. But typically he rises around 8, catching up on news and sports and heading to town for coffee at 10, followed by fetch with Duncan at the beach and/or in the backyard pool.

His biggest meal is lunch, usually back in downtown Sag Harbor, followed by a 30-to-60-minute nap, then into the car around 3:30 for the schlep back to Queens.

Thrills? It was enough Wednesday to encounter several wild turkeys by the side of the road. He was so excited he stopped his car and got out to make sure Kai, who was driving a car following him, had seen them, too.

"People think I'm more of a loose cannon than I really am,'' Hernandez said. "I'm not that far off the charts. My life is pretty mundane. When people meet me and they're all excited, I tell them, 'Trust me, I'm overrated. Just ask my wife.' ''

Hernandez removed the copy of Moby-Dick from his collection and announced one of his offseason plans: Joining Kai in reading the book.

Aloud.

Such is life for Mex these days, where the only fast lane that matters is the one on the LIE.