Book Reviews

Book Review: If At First by Keith Hernandez and Mike Bryan – Game By Game

As the baseball season winds down, and my team is no longer competing, I look for ways to keep myself connected to the game while I wait for “next year.”. That usually involves me watching a few baseball DVDs and reading some books to keep me “in the game” during the hot-stove months. This year, I came across two books written by Mets players in the mid-1980s, a time I call the “glory years”. This was a time before we knew about steroids in the game, and before icons such as Daryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden had their fall from grace.

The first book is If At First written by Keith Hernandez and Mike Bryan. Hernandez kept a game-by-game diary of the 1985 season. While some may not remember that season in the shadow of the incredible season a year later, 1985 was terrific in its own right. Had there been a “wild card” back then, the Mets would have surely been it, having been eliminated on the second-to-last game of the season. It was also a tough year for other reasons. Hernandez was going through a bitter divorce as well as having to testify about his own drug use (cocaine) during a trial in Pittsburgh. In addition, there was a 2-day player’s strike which is generally not something people remember in the wake of the 1981 and 1994 strikes.

Hernandez has always been controversial to one degree or another. He has been accused several times of being misogynistic due to his comments about women. Considering he has three daughters, I don’t think that’s really possible but his insight into the dealings behind a bitter baseball divorce and the animosity that’s created may explain some of it. He has views that many players have had through the years, and barriers have been broken. The first step was women reporters in the clubhouse (he comments on this) and more recently has been women trainers in the dugout (he caused a furor last season with his remarks on this). He also weighs in on the effects of wives, fiancees, and girlfriends traveling with the team. If nothing else, he is brutally honest even if you disagree with him on some of his views.

What really makes If At First a great baseball book is Hernandez’s insight into how the game is played. There are so many little things that go into a game that fans never see and never have a chance to understand. He talks about the little intricacies that go into each game, such as how where a foot is in the batter’s box or small adjustments in the stance can make a difference (it did in his season). Hearing about the difference in how a batter goes after the ball was something I never looked for until I read this book. If At First was a book that was largely responsible for the baseball knowledge I have as I learned to analyze what was happening and see what a batter was doing wrong, or if he was just probably making a bad guess on the pitch.

Hernandez weighs in on other subjects as well, such as his feelings on his fellow Mets players and those he knows from around the Major Leagues, on Whitey Herzog’s intentions when he traded him to the Mets in 1983, on drinking and baseball, and on dealing with the media. There are many other topics covered as he discusses why the players really had a low opinion of the All-Star Game and why he didn’t care if he was selected or not. I don’t necessarily agree with his philosophy there, but he makes some valid points to consider. If you truly believe that the All-Star Game is “the fan’s game” and the fans are paying your salary either directly through ticket sales or indirectly through advertising revenue, then the players should be more open to showing their appreciation in return. I can understand why, during this season with his early slump and all that was hanging over him off the field, he would choose to bypass the game, but I also subscribe to the train of thought that if it’s part of the game and you don’t like it, then find something else to do with your life.

Written day by day almost as a diary there are moments where the book bogs down. I can’t say it was something I rushed through and wanted to read each day. I read it slowly over the course of a few weeks and that pace was good. For people who don’t want to know all of the technical intricacies of the game, you will find the book tedious at times. I find all of that fascinating.

Mets fans really need to read this book, especially if you can’t remember those glory years. I really enjoyed reading the book and it was something special to read his detail about a game and remember that I had been there! I sometimes have trouble remembering what I had for dinner last night, but I can remember a baseball game from more than twenty years ago. That’s something to marvel at, and I really thank Hernandez for this trip down memory lane.

Is it time for pitchers and catchers yet?

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