Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

October 2, 2012

The Man in the Leather Blazer

David Roth on Keith Hernandez, who even shorn of his mustache is comfortable in his own skin, or in that of a cow.

Jeremy Repanich

I grew up in Seattle, where regional affinities left me more concerned with West Coast baseball than with what happened out East. So in my youth, Keith Hernandez barely registered. In fact, my first impression of him came not from with his play but rather his performance as Jerry Seinfeld and Elaine Benes's manfriend.

David Roth
"I was writing more about Hernandez the Hernandez than Hernandez the player."

David Roth

David Roth, who wrote an essay on Hernandez for the new baseball-profile collection The Hall of Nearly Great, would probably find this introduction to the ballplayer quite apt. In Roth's chapter of a book that is a collection of arguments for some players' immortality (if not quite enshrinement), he builds the case for Hernandez's greatness more on his aura and preternatural cool than on what the first baseman accomplished with a bat and glove.

From coke and speed use, to memoirs recounting fellatio in a team bus, to digressions in the broadcast booth, the essay captures what makes Hernandez an enduring character. Roth shared with Gelf how he first fell under Hernandez's spell as a young Mets fan and how he eventually became a Hernandez completist. We also discussed the launch and evolution of the sports site The Classical, where Roth is an editor and a co-founder. In an increasingly crowded field of online magazines trying to cover sports with writing elevated far above Bleacher Report fare, he explains how the nearly one-year-old site fits into the sports-media landscape. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: What are the criteria for inclusion in the Hall of Nearly Great?

David Roth: You'd have to ask Sky and Marc for the specifics, but I know it's not specifically pegged to wins above replacement or whatever so much as it reflects a broader ambient sense of who was close: players with good careers who weren't quite good enough or great enough, or weren't perceived as such; players with dazzling, Hall-worthy half-decade stretches who were also jerks and so would never be voted in; mysterious, dark-horse MVP winners of the Nixon/Ford years.
I knew, though, when they first approached me and before they gave us the (long) list of potential subjects, that Keith Hernandez would be on there, and that he'd top my list. Whatever one's personal criteria for assessing a brilliant, distinctive, era-defining star who is for one reason or another not Hall of Fame material, Keith measures up. Also, he is the coolest Met ever, probably, and I wrote my first words about the dude when I was maybe seven years old, so it seemed like a good pick for me.

Gelf Magazine: How'd you come to be involved in this project?

David Roth: Just lucky, I guess. Marc and Sky asked, even though I didn't know either of them—in true internet fashion, I still haven't met them, and wouldn't know either of them from Wily Mo Pena if I met them at the reading. We got a long matrix of players from which to choose, I ranked my picks—the top three or four were all Mets, and then I think I had Norm Cash in there—and I waited.
When I got Hernandez, I knew that if/when I ever met these guys, I'd owe them a beer. I loved Keith as a kid, and think his fusty free-associating as a Mets color broadcaster is the best (and, as the season ended, borderline only) reason to watch a Mets game. I like to think I would've written this anyway, just to get my #OMGKEITH tendencies out of my brain and onto a page. But I'm glad they let me do it in a more constructive fashion.

Gelf Magazine: Did you attempt to contact your inductee or sometimes are profiles better without an interview?

David Roth: I didn't, although I thought about it. It probably could've been done and it might've helped the piece. Lord knows I'd love to talk to Hernandez over a couple drinks and the small-plate appetizers of his choice. But it helped a lot that Keith left an unusually large number of primary sources behind—If at First, his memoir of the 1985 season, is pretty fantastic and way more introspective and off-message—at least insofar as it includes bits about team-bus oral sex and getting housed at TGI Friday's with Sid Fernandez and Clint Hurdle—than anything any player would put out today. And his Pure Baseball book, which is this monastically deep parsing of two frankly irrelevant early-'90s games, is equally essential in its Hernandez-ness. I re-read The Bad Guys Won and stuff, too, but that barely counts as work. And since I was writing, mostly, about the Keith Hernandez I admired as a kid and have puzzled over since, I think it worked out OK that I didn't speak to the actual Keith Hernandez. Although I would still love to get a beer with the guy, honestly.

Gelf Magazine: You seem quite taken with his Keith Hernandez-itude, his very Keith Hernandez-ness. Would you worry that hanging out with him would puncture that aura around him?

David Roth: It certainly would, and I know that. That's part of why I didn't reach out, I suspect, although I'm fortunate to have an easy justification, here—Hernandez is, in a way a lot of contemporary Hall of Famers aren't, a character. He's also a person: a guy who had drug problems and an impossible dad and who got divorced and was in psychoanalysis for a long time. All of that is there, to a certain extent, in If At First, and maybe even a little in his weird beat-poetic color commentary on Mets games. But if there's a plaque with Ty Cobb's name on it that doesn't also have the words "nightmarish sociopathic asshole YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW" on it, I figure I can write the myth in an essay for an ebook.

Gelf Magazine: How much of that aura was lost when his mustache was shaved?

David Roth: Only the dead-endedest of dead-end Mets fans would have any reason to know this, but Keith has announced games this season while rocking a leather blazer. He pulled it off, in a way that Tyler Durden didn't even quite pull that look off. Yeah, his upper lip looked really weird and pale after he lost the 'stache, but if the guy can pull off a leather blazer, I think it's fair to say that he's effectively unfade-able.

Gelf Magazine: The last paragraph of your essay was great, where you recount a time when in the booth Keith meticulously described the proper preparation of lamb, completely talking over what was happening on the field. Considering you didn't even mention in the essay that Keith was 1979 MVP, was this your way of confirming to the reader that your appreciation of Keith had more to do with him than the game he played?

David Roth: Well, co-MVP with Willie Stargell, although Hernandez probably should've won it outright. But you're right that I was writing more about Hernandez the Hernandez than Hernandez the player. He was a pretty great player—no one has ever played first base the way he did, that aggressively and intuitively, and he had that admirable/weird rigorous-masochistic studiousness that certain types of great hitters have. I hope I gave him his due, there.
But because Hernandez has basically lived out his post-coke adulthood in public, in New York, in front of my hungry nerd-eyeballs, I do feel a different sort of connection to him. As a player, he was just shy of Hall of Fame status, at least by the voters' lights: I imagine that his peers would've described him as one of the best first basemen of his generation. But I'm not his peer: I grew up as his fan, and have followed him over the decades since he stopped being someone I thought I aspired to be—my baseball skills hit their low, hard ceiling, and he retired.
But what's admirable about Hernandez, still, at least to me, is that he has mellowed into a goofball. As a player, he was wired—on coke and then on that speed-laced clubhouse coffee, and on neurosis and a dozen substrata of inferiority and fear. As a broadcaster, and as someone who seems to inhabit his public persona with a comfort that was years in the earning, he actually seems like a likable and happy—if amusingly confident—human being, as well as a giddy, self-aware goofasaurus. I've gotten over, belatedly, the idea that I might somehow make money playing baseball. But the last bit, the new Keith—I still aspire to that, and still find it admirable.

Gelf Magazine: Is there something about baseball that lends itself to a Hall of Nearly Great more than other sports?

David Roth: The short answer, I think, would be yes: The Hall of Fame is hilariously conservative, the reasoning with respect to induction is opaque but still transparently flawed and politicized and hemorrhoidally retrograde, and enough mistakes have been made in years past to have created a sort of ambient wince-iness over the whole Cooperstown thing. But it matters, despite all that, so everyone who falls short is made more poignant for the falling-short, because there's a case to be made for most of them and a case to be made against the crustaceao-biases and derpy selective righteousness that decides who gets in and how long they'll have to wait. Anyone who saw Keith Hernandez play at his best—a stretch that was going on a dozen years; he really did have a respectable Hall of Fame case—remembers it with a complicated, anxious awe, like in the same way that I remain fearful of finding myself in some position in which the safety of my family or a loved one depends on my being able to get Will Clark out. There was more to Hernandez than his numbers, I guess is what I'm saying, but all that extra-numerical stuff is not stuff that Hall of Fame voters would be into.
Being remembered is, I think, mostly the thing. But the Hall of Fame is a conservative, stodged-out museum, and that's a different thing. The space between those two, the unofficial honor and the official one, is pretty fertile territory for a writer, if only because that's where the actual human stuff happens. I'm still guessing, hero-projecting with Keith Hernandez. But that's the game. It's just not the Hall of Fame's game.

Gelf Magazine: Has the debate over Hall of Fame inclusion faded in the culture or am I just not as in tune with it anymore? It feels so much less urgent and meaningful than it used to be.

David Roth: I don't know, really. I think that, as with politics and the continued greenlighting of Fast and Furious sequels and other things that exist beyond and above the actual will of the people, it's natural that we'd tune it out. We never really had a lot of agency on this sort of thing, of course. But it sure is easier to acknowledge or accept all this as sort of pompous kabuki bullshit if you can go on Twitter and see a hundred other smart people being like "Jim Rice is only in the Hall of Fame because the voters wanted Dan Shaughnessy to stop talking about him."

Gelf Magazine: How do you guys over at The Classical fit in with this new brand of online sports sites? How do you differentiate yourself from Grantland and Sports On Earth?

David Roth: Mostly by not having any money to pay staffers or writers and by doing the site when we're not hustling for our own freelance work or doing things for day jobs. Also I think our logo is way better than either of theirs. Also, also: by running things that are more political or digressive or obscure than those sites would run.

Gelf Magazine: With all these sites wanting to do more long-form sports writing—after all, Sports Illustrated still exists too—and with obsessive coverage of sports, do you worry about there being enough great stories to go around?

David Roth: Yeah, sure. We always knew, more or less, that we'd not be able to keep up in terms of exclusives. We've had our moments, various small stories we got to first and such, but that was never going to be us. None of us are or can afford to be full-time, which is a bummer but which we always sort of knew—or at least, doing it full-time was an idea of which we disabused ourselves quickly enough.
But the idea we had at the start, which was writing as well as we could and as intelligently as we could, in our own various voices, about what was happening in sports—I think there's room enough for that. There are things we can write or run that SI and Grantland and Sports On Earth can't or wouldn't or otherwise won't write or run. Sometimes those things are good, and sometimes we run things other sites wouldn't run because we're being pedantic or goofy or wrong. But the idea, at least for me, was to run things that were well-argued and (most importantly, for me) written in a distinctive way. There are a finite number of stories, obviously, although we're happy to make things up during slow periods in the news cycle. But the fun of it—the part of it that I humor myself to think matters—is running stuff that reflects a perspective that isn't reflected anywhere else. I think, for whatever else we do right or wrong and however much money we do or don't make, that we're still doing pretty well, there.

Gelf Magazine: What has been the biggest challenge for you guys starting up?

David Roth: Boring, but: time and money. I am the only person on the editorial board who is a full-time freelancer, which at least means that I don't have to worry about some Lumbergh turning up at my cubicle and being terrible about me looking for MMA images on Flickr. But the challenge, for me and the rest of us, is mostly just about bandwidth. We want to do all this right, to give pieces enough edits to make them dope and to work with writers to help them get better, and that takes time. And we don't have much of that, because we don't have the money to stop doing the other things we do to pay rent.
I don't want this to sound whiny, because there's nothing really to whine about, here—this has been awesome and 100,000% worth it. I've gotten to work with people that are my heroes and friends and amazingly talented people I never would have met otherwise. And I knew it would be work, and I've never been happier to do work than I am to do this particular work. But also it's tough to run the sort of site you've always wished existed on your bathroom breaks. I knew that'd be how it went. I didn't know it'd be this tough.

Gelf Magazine: How have you evolved since you started? What are your short-term and long-term goals?

David Roth: The evolution thing is hard to talk about without sounding like a jerk, but I think there has been a sort of mutual figuring-things-out, both in terms of the editorial people and the many people writing for us: We all sort of get what a Classical article sounds like now. We have a sense of humor and a way of talking that's identifiably ours, and I'm proud of that. Also we have a lot of really good young writers writing for us with some regularity—Noah Davis and Tomas Rios and Aaron Gordon, and Ryan O'Hanlon until he got his job at Outside—who have gone from very good to pretty much unbeatable in their time with us. I'm biased, obviously. But working with them helped me a lot as an editor, and I hope it helped them as writers, too. That's the evolution I can feel the most urgently, and be the proudest of.
I can't really speak on the business side. We have people better qualified to think and work on that, who are (I hope!) thinking and working on it, and I'm glad of that. My job is to write and edit, and I've improved at both of those, I think, just in the way that anyone would improve at something that one does all the time, every day. The long-term, honestly, I worry about—the site, I think, is mostly pretty great, but we're all pretty far in the red most of the time making it go, and that makes longer-term strategic thinking difficult. And no one has really figured out how to make money selling smart words on the internet. But, again, that's not my thing, and I am glad as hell about that.
My short-term goals are the only goals that are real to me, then, and they're: 1) never to write something I disagree with, and to write everything I write as well as I can; 2) to work with other writers to make stuff that all of us can be proud of, and which will help those writers get paid further down the line; and 3) to write about sports in ways that other sites don't or wouldn't or can't. That and getting some sleep on occasion and making sure that Paul Wall never does something sports-related without me writing something about it. I'm at least keeping up on the Paul Wall stuff, mostly.

Jeremy Repanich

Jeremy Repanich is a writer for Sports Illustrated Kids.

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Article by Jeremy Repanich

Jeremy Repanich is a writer for Sports Illustrated Kids.

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