The 25th anniversary of the most significant trade in
Mets history includes a historic footnote. It might never have occurred if the
Mets' front office knew why the Cardinals were unloading Keith Hernandez.
Years before he became a central piece of the 1986 world champion Mets and
gained iconic status in team history, Hernandez abused cocaine, an issue not
publicly confirmed until Hernandez and several other players testified in the
1985 Pittsburgh drug trials.
The back story of the trade offers a look at the major-league baseball
climate in the pre-steroid and largely ignored substance-abuse years of the
Hernandez, now a popular analyst for Mets games on SNY, said the Cardinals
undoubtedly suspected his drug use before trading him to the Mets for pitchers
Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey. "They couldn't have traded me if it got out,"
Hernandez said recently as he reflected on the deal that brought him to the
Mets on June 15, 1983.
Hernandez rarely has discussed his past addiction, which he has said lasted
about three years and ended before his arrival to the Mets.
"It was a difficult time in my life. I was in and out of my first
marriage," Hernandez said. "I was fooling around with drugs, the coke, we all
know that. I don't want to say on a recreational basis - I hate that word.
There were some nights when I was up all night. I didn't sleep. It was very
destructive. This is not a performance-enhancing drug; this is a
performance-destructive drug. I just made up my mind I wanted to stop."
It wasn't easy, Hernandez said, adding, "It is that alluring."
In June '83, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog couched the trade of Hernandez
as saying the Cardinals needed more pitching. At worst, Hernandez was pictured
as having an attitude problem, which Hernandez agreed was part of the issue.
But it went deeper than that.
Herzog never has publicly discussed his suspicions about Hernandez. "I
can't say I knew Keith had been doing drugs," Herzog said in his 1988 book
"White Rat, a Life in Baseball," which was co-authored with St. Louis columnist
"What the hell," Herzog was quoted in the book, "unless you spot a guy
snorting coke or smoking marijuana, or unless some reliable witness comes to
you or it blows up in the press, you never know for sure ... There were things
about him that made me suspicious, but I can live with suspicions. What I
couldn't live with was his attitude."
Herzog went to Cardinals owner August Busch and, according to Herzog's
book, the beer baron told him to "trade the son of a bitch." Busch died in 1989
at age 90. A spokesman for Anheuser-Busch refused to respond to what role
Busch played in the Hernandez trade.
Speaking on the topic today, Herzog still avoids the drug issue. "Keith was
a hell of a ballplayer," he told Newsday. "I didn't want to trade him, I was
ordered to ."
Asked the reason, Herzog snapped: "I haven't talked about it in 25 years,
I'm sure as hell not going to talk about it now."
Hernandez said the Cardinals never directly asked him if he had a drug
Then-Mets general manager Frank Cashen said he had heard some issues about
Hernandez's marital problems and "that he was not getting along with Whitey,
but I had not heard that rumor at that point in time."
As the trade deadline approached, Herzog dispatched Cardinals GM Joe
McDonald to offer Hernandez to Cashen. "I was sitting at my desk one day and
Joe McDonald called me," Cashen, now 82, said from Port St. Lucie. "He said,
'Have you ever thought about trading Neil Allen?' I said 'Why would I want to
trade him?' He said 'Well, if you talk about Neil Allen, we'll talk about Mex
\.' I was stunned. The whole thing was done in a couple of phone calls at a
total time of about 10 minutes."
McDonald, 79, a Red Sox scout, refused comment.
Cashen's staff members were equally amazed that Hernandez, a former
co-National League MVP and five-time Gold Glove winner, was being made
available. "I was standing by Frank and he had this huge smile on his face,"
former vice president of administration Jim Nagourney said. "I said, 'What's
up, Frank?' He told me. I said, 'For gosh sakes, take that smile off your face
and make the phone call.' He was so hysterically happy that he was having a
hard time dialing to say yes."
The baseball environment was not used to dealing with drugs. Alcohol and,
to a lesser extent, amphetamines - which the players called greenies - were the
only known problems in the baseball culture. And they were given scant
"In the '80s, trades were not based on that stuff [drugs]," said Joe
McIlvaine, who was the Mets' director of scouting at the time. "The Players
Association had such control that we absolutely had no way of testing or
proving or getting information. We weren't even allowed to discuss those kind
Hernandez said he did not cry uncontrollably over the trade (as was
reported at the time), but he wasn't thrilled with it, either. "Maybe I needed
a new challenge," he said. "It definitely rejuvenated my career."
He learned to love New York and was looked up to by the young and talented
Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden.
"Looking back," Hernandez said, "I have to sometimes pinch myself" for the
good fortune of the trade.
Hernandez has repaired his relationship with Herzog. When Hernandez was
inducted into the Missouri Hall of Fame last winter, he gave an impassioned
speech about Herzog's influence in his career, calling him the best manager he
ever played for.
"Hernandez also wrote to Herzog. "I got a beautiful letter from him,"
Herzog said. "He is a heck of a man."