Mets' Keith Hernandez is seen at Shea Stadium.

Mets' Keith Hernandez is seen at Shea Stadium. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams

The Mets' acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes minutes before the July 31 trade deadline could become the team's biggest non-waiver deal since the acquisition of Keith Hernandez from the Cardinals in 1983.

The Mets were in last place in the National League East when Hernandez arrived, and his hitting and leadership helped make them contenders and then World Series champions in 1986. Cespedes, who can become a free agent after the season, is on a faster track as the Mets battle the Nationals for the division lead.

"I don't think there should be any pressure on him other than playing in front of a new audience," said Hernandez, 61, an analyst for Mets games on SNY. "He's playing for a contract. You have all the incentive in the world. He's going to a team that's in contention. What more do you want?"

Hernandez, who in 1979 won the National League batting title and was co-MVP with Willie Stargell, was leaving a Cardinals team that had won the World Series in 1982. He didn't envision himself as a savior for the Mets.

"I wasn't thinking that at all,'' Hernandez said this past week. "I thought the Mets were a mess and it would take more than one player to bring them around. I wasn't aware that they had all that wealth of talent,'' either at the big-league level or on the way to the majors in Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling.

"Basically, I felt I was getting traded to the salt mines,'' Hernandez said. "When it went down, I was very unhappy. I thought it was the worst possible thing that could possibly happen to me. And it turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me.''

Hernandez, traded for closer Neil Allen and pitcher Rick Ownbey, said he understood Wilmer Flores' emotional reaction when it appeared the Mets were sending the infielder to the Brewers before the Carlos Gomez deal fell apart.

"That brought up a lot of old buried feelings that I had forgotten about,'' Hernandez said. "I totally relate to what he was going through. Everybody gets traded. The first one's always the tough one.''

Obtaining Hernandez was a game-changer for the Mets. "This was Frank [Cashen's] deal all the way,'' former Mets vice president Al Harazin said of the late general manager. "I think he saw Hernandez as a winner. We desperately were trying to turn the corner. We knew we had some good young talent coming. We knew with St. Louis and Keith, there was some marriage-on-the-rocks quality about it. I would call him a catalyst more than anything else to what we were trying to accomplish.''

(In 2008, Hernandez told Newsday he had struggled with substance-abuse issues during a period with the Cardinals that ended before his arrival with the Mets.)

The Mets became an acquired taste for Hernandez. "I started liking the city in about three weeks [but] the whole second half of that season in '83, I was not happy,'' Hernandez said. "It was a lousy team, they were terrible.'' The 1983 Mets finished 68-94.

That changed the next season, and Hernandez saw the potential around him. "We weren't expected to do anything in '84,'' he said. "We were picked to finish last.''

But the Mets finished in second place and Hernandez signed a five-year extension in February 1984.

Harazin said that was the hope all along. "Once we got him here, we could show him what we were trying to do,'' he said. "And I think that's the way it worked out.''

The Mets, who obtained catcher Gary Carter from the Expos in December 1984, also finished second in '85. In '86, they went 108-54 in the regular season and beat the Red Sox in the World Series.

Hernandez sees a similar path for Cespedes, albeit at an accelerated rate.

"I really don't feel that this lineup is totally dependent on him,'' he said. "I think [Lucas] Duda has caught fire. [Cespedes] shouldn't feel he has to come here and think, 'I've got to move man, mountain and earth for this club to win.' "

Hernandez thinks Cespedes will consider staying with the Mets. "He's got to look at the Mets and say, 'Well, this is a team for now and in the future,' " he said. "I've got to believe he's feeling that way.''

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