After saving games in the bigs, Hernandez is giving back
Listed at 6-foot-4 during his playing career, Roberto Hernandez stands over a crowd. His numbers stand out too: 17 years in the big leagues, 1,010 games pitched, 945 strikeouts, 667 games finished, 326 saves and a 3.45 ERA in 1,071.3 innings.
And on Monday with his family and a few of his Cooperstown Dreams Park players in tow from his home in St. Petersburg, Fla., he used his height to hang behind the others and allow them to see the treasures on display at the Hall of Fame.
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Manhattan as a Mets fan, Hernandez appreciates the history of the game he played. He fondly remembers the Mets of the 1970s, including the 1973 NL Champs, but he often saw highlights of Roberto Clemente at Shea Stadium and his legendary countryman quickly became his favorite player.
Drafted by the Angels in 1986 before a 1989 trade sent him to the White Sox, Hernandez played in Chicago from 1991 to 2007. With the White Sox in 1992, he made his only other trip to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame Game, playing against the Mets. But during his last trip, he spent virtually the entire time in the Doubleday bullpen, not entering the game.
So this time a trip through the Museum, where he saw Clemente’s plaque and his 3,000th hit bat on display in ¡Viva Baseball!, led up to the behind-the-scenes tour. Among the artifacts the group was shown was Satchel Paige’s biography – one in which the ageless wonder talked about pitching three scoreless innings against the Red Sox at 59 years of age, allowing a single hit to Carl Yastrzemski. Asked if he could get MLB hitters out at that age, the 47-year-old vet of 10 teams said no, but he might be able to right now, though he acknowledges hitters today are in better condition than they were, even when he was at his peak in the 1990s.
A two-time All-Star, Hernandez said his legs gave out on him, but his arm could possibly still go. Four times he led the AL in games finished, including twice when he had the most in the majors. When he racked up a career high 66 games finished in 1999, he finished second in saves with 43 to saves king Mariano Rivera’s 45. The difference? Hernandez’s Tampa Bay squad only won 69 games while Rivera’s Yankees won 98.
“It wasn’t easy. We had a good bullpen that year,” Hernandez said. “Gimme 12 more wins and I beat Mo.”
In 2005 he signed a one-year deal with the Mets, returning to his boyhood home in New York. In the offseason he signed with Pittsburgh, but at the trade deadline came back to Shea along with Oliver Perez in a deal that sent Xavier Nady to the Pirates.
“It was an honor to put on that uniform, when I played there for a year-and-a-half,” he said.
Coming up, one of those Mets from his youth, Felix Millan, coached him in winter ball.
These days, it’s all about giving back to the game for Hernandez – from his coaching, to mentoring players with his former team, the Tampa Bay Rays. The future may even hold a bigger role with the Rays as a special instructor of some sort. But for now, he’s enjoying what he does, staying close to home and raising his grandson, whom he held during much of the tour while letting the others crowd around up front.
“It’s very impressive to see the meticulous care taken at preserving our history,” Hernandez said of the Hall of Fame after the tour. “It’s very refreshing for (these kids) to see what we’re talking about when we share our first hand knowledge.”
Trevor Hayes the editorial production manager for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum