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‘I’m Keith Hernandez’ focuses on former Met’s early, ‘fragile’ years

Book cover of "I'm Keith Hernandez: A Memoir"

Book cover of "I'm Keith Hernandez: A Memoir" Credit:

The author establishes early on in “I’m Keith Hernandez” that this is no ordinary memoir, citing among his inspirations a visit to a grocery store to buy eggs and an episode of “Seinfeld” in which he starred and from which the title is drawn.

More importantly, he establishes what it is not: a look back for Mets fans at the 1986 season and/or for Cardinals fans at 1982. Those seeking tales such as the plane ride home from Houston after the 1986 NLCS will be disappointed.

Rather, Hernandez calls this a “prequel” to those World Series-winning years, focused on setbacks and insecurities on his indirect road to stardom through the 1970s.

“New York saw the finished product,” he told Newsday in an interview in the SNY booth at Citi Field Saturday to promote the book’s May 15 release. “They saw me with everything behind me, as far as my development.”

That development, in baseball terms and for the purposes of the book, culminated in April 1980, when Hernandez got off to a strong start to follow up a 1979 season in which he was National League batting champion and co-MVP.

“That was when I finally realized I belonged on the same field as Steve Carlton, Pete Rose, Steve Garvey and Willie Stargell [his co-MVP],” Hernandez said.

If the above sounds like the makings of an inspirational-but-dry self-help bore, fear not. Hernandez’s book is loaded with anecdotal material reminiscent of the movie “Bull Durham,” which he writes captures minor-league life “to a T.”

Sex, alcohol and drugs feature prominently.

Woven into the core story are others from his childhood in northern California, specifically about a devoted but sometimes difficult and over-involved father, John, as well as present-day observations about the state of the modern game and his analyst job on SNY.

“I think how we end the book kind of exonerates my dad,” Hernandez said. “He wasn’t a bad father. He just lived his life vicariously through me . . . He knew when I was 11 years old that I had something special, and he wasn’t going to let me [expletive] it up.”

One of the most effective passages in the book concerns the first major-league game Hernandez saw in person, at Candlestick Park in 1963, with his father and his brother, Gary.

First came the shocking revelation that Cardinals star Dick Groat, with his cap off, was . . . bald?!?

Then something better: Stan Musial, John Hernandez’s former teammate on a Navy team stationed at Pearl Harbor, got the Hernandez family inside the Cardinals’ clubhouse for a visit.

“It’s such a fateful moment,” he writes, “that even if I live to be a hundred and my brain is the consistency of dry toast, I’ll remember it.”

All of the above was more than enough to fill the 320 pages his publishers were looking for, which led Hernandez and Mike Poncy, the writer with whom he worked, to narrow the focus.

“We realized that if this was going to be my entire life, childhood to present,” Hernandez said, “it would have to be a Victor Hugo tome. It would have to be a thousand pages, 800 pages. And it would take another year-and-a-half.”

It already had been 2½ years, so everyone involved settled on this, with the idea of a potential second volume in the future. That one would include the ’86 Mets as well as less happy matters such as the Pittsburgh drug trials of 1985.

“I was very concerned, and I told Mike and Ian [Kleinert, his literary agent], that people are going to be [expletive] that I didn’t write about that, like I’m dodging the drug trials,” he said.

The book does reference the first time Hernandez used cocaine, but leaves it at that.

Hernandez praised Poncy for his research, but Hernandez himself spent many hours on poring over boxscores from the 1970s, often surprising himself by how much he had misremembered.

For example, he hit home runs in his first two games in 1977, and could have sworn for decades it had happened in Philadelphia. “But it was in Pittsburgh,” he said. “I don’t know how I screwed that up.”

His biggest regret about the book is how little space there was to explore that 1977 season and the roles played by memorable characters from Bake McBride to Al Hrabosky.

There is plenty of detail on the 1979 batting race, in which Pete Rose made a spectacular late-season push to catch Hernandez but fell short.

So if you agree with the first line of the book, in which Hernandez writes, “I love baseball,” there is much here for you.

Even at 64, Hernandez has maintained the coolness quotient that made him a star in New York more than 30 years ago, and that made his “Seinfeld” appearance work so well in 1992.

The message of “I’m Keith Hernandez” is that that and everything else positive that has happened since 1980 was a result of all that happened before 1980.

“It’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears and disappointment and heartache, and exhilaration as well, and the setbacks,” he said. “I really wanted to bring that out, the fact I was so fragile. I am not ashamed of that. I was 18, 19, 20, 21, a 22-year-old kid, highly touted, and I was struggling.”

Area signings

Keith Hernandez will be signing copies of his new memoir “I’m Keith Hernandez” in the New York area.

Tuesday, May 15: At Barnes & Noble at 555 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, 12:30 p.m.

Thursday, May 17: at Book Revue in Huntington from 6-8 p.m.

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