The sad news came out of Venezuela on Monday. Former major league shortstop Enzo Hernandez had died on Sunday at the age of 63. According to initial media reports, Hernandez suffered from depression and committed suicide. At this report, the Associated Press has not been able to confirm a cause of death, so the speculation remains centered on suicide.
Hernandez’ passing did not create major headlines, but it has stirred a reaction from me on two different fronts. The first involves a broader issue, one that seems to becoming more prevalent in our society. If the preliminary reports of suicide are true, Hernandez becomes the fourth former big leaguer to take his own life in the last two years, after Mike Flanagan, Hideki Irabu and Ryan Freel. If we go back a little further, former major league infielder Keith Drumright committed suicide in 2010, and retired pitcher Brian Powell took his own life in 2009. So that is six suicide deaths in the past four years.
I don’t know that we can say that this represents a trend, like we have seen in the NFL with the oft-speculated relationship between repeated head injuries and suicide. Of these four major league ballplayers, it is believed that only Freel suffered concussions. Furthermore, I don’t know that there is any real connection among the four cases. After all, these players were never teammates; they also represent a cross-section of different eras, covering a long period from the early 1970s to nearly the current day. In all likelihood, this is not a tangible trend.
Yet these suicide deaths should not be completely ignored. The Alumni Association and the Baseball Assistance Team do terrific work with ex-players during their retirement years, but that is not always soon enough for some players. Perhaps Major League Baseball (or the Players’ Association) should look further into the ways that players are prepared for their post-playing careers. Do players receive counseling, during their careers, about how to make the eventual move from ballplayer to real life? Are most major leaguers ready for the next part of their lives, once their careers have ended? In particular, what are the financial difficulties faced by players, especially those who played a good portion of their careers before free agency and never made big money?
I’m not sure how to answer those questions.
Then there is the matter of Hernandez on a more individual level. I am not going to pretend that Hernandez was a particularly good player. He was a light-hitting shortstop who played for the Padres and Dodgers over eight seasons. He was perhaps best known for driving in only 12 runs in 1971, despite playing a full season for San Diego. That represented the lowest total for a player qualifying for the batting title in the modern era. Some have called his 1971 season the stuff of legend.
Defensively, Hernandez was considered a slick fielder in his day, and he was also praised for his defensive play in some of his obituaries, but some of today’s more advanced measurements cast him in a different light. According to TotalZone, Hernandez checked in with a rating of -20, which puts him below average. As a point of comparison, a standout defensive shortstop like Ed Brinkman scored a plus 77.
Hernandez did have a tendency to commit errors, though he generally showed plus range, particularly going to his left, toward the second base bag. So the jury is split on Hernandez’ true defensive value.
In contrast, there is little doubt that Hernandez was an excellent base stealer who compiled a success rate of 80 per cent for his career. He stole 129 bases, but was caught only 33 times. Given his speed and base stealing acumen, a role as a pinch-runner and utility man might have been the best for Hernandez.
Hernandez’ intriguing professional journey began in 1967, when he signed out of Venezuela with the Astros. He never had a chance to make it to Houston; after the 1968 season, the Astros included him in a trade that sent left-hander Mike Cuellar to the Orioles for Curt Blefary. The Orioles assigned Hernandez to Single-A ball and watched their 5-foot-8 shortstop move his way up the organizational ladder. By 1970, Hernandez advanced to Triple-A, but he still found himself stuck behind a young Mark Belanger, the Orioles’ incumbent shortstop and arguably the finest fielding shortstop of the era.
With Hernandez having nowhere to go, the Orioles included him in a package that netted them right-hander Pat Dobson from San Diego. So Hernandez and young right-handers Fred Beene, Tom Phoebus and Al Severinsen made their way to the Padres for Dobson. For the second time in his career, Hernandez had endured a trade, still without earning a sniff of the major leagues.
That would change in 1970. Heading into their third season as a National League expansion franchise, the Padres made Hernandez their starting shortstop. Padres manager Preston Gomez felt that Hernandez would represent a great improvement over the group of misfits he had tried at shortstop during the Padres’ first two seasons. “Hernandez could solve our shortstop problem for years to come,” Gomez told The Sporting News.
Hernandez played well in the early weeks of the season, drawing comparisons to his countryman Luis Aparicio. “He’s a good kid who wants to learn, and listens when you tell him something,” said Gomez. “He has a lot of Aparicio in him.”
Unfortunately, as the season progressed, Hernandez’ hitting tailed off. He often looked over-matched at the plate. By the end of the season, his numbers were nightmarish. Not only did the 12 RBIs in 618 plate appearances raise flags, but so did his .222 batting average, a .298 on-base percentage and a paltry .250 slugging percentage. The only bright spot? Hernandez did walk 54 times, a total he would never match.
Hernandez’ numbers looked like those of a No. 8 hitter in a National League lineup. But the Padres had used him as their leadoff man for most of the season. That fact made his offensive production an even greater black mark against the San Diego offense.
A more established team might have viewed other alternatives, but the Padres stuck with Hernandez in 1972. He hit even worse, his batting average falling below .200 and his OPS below .500. Even in a lesser offensive environment like the early 1970s, those numbers simply weren’t acceptable.
In spite of his offensive difficulties, Hernandez became somewhat of a cult figure with the Padres. The public address announcer at San Diego Stadium typically introduced him with a flourish, running his uniform number and his first name together, before pausing and announcing his last name: “NumberElevenEnzo… Hernandez!!” That introduction became a crowd favorite in San Diego.
His popularity aside, Hernandez’ lack of hitting finally caught up to him in 1973, when he lost his starting job to Derrel Thomas. It didn’t matter that Thomas was better suited to play second base; the Pods needed any kind of offensive boost they could muster and made the switch.
In 1974, the Padres moved Thomas to second, clearing the way for Enzo to return to shortstop. Playing in a career-high 147 games, Hernandez lifted his average to .232 and stole a personal best 37 bases.
That would represent a high point for Hernandez. His playing time fell off over the next two seasons, with one of the few bright spots represented by his league-leading 24 sacrifice bunts in 1975. It was during the 1975 season that a prominent member of the Padres’ front office delivered this brutal assessment of Hernandez’ performance. “Enzo doesn’t get on base as much as he should, or score as often as he should, because he doesn’t walk enough and because he hits too many balls in the air and not on the ground,” Padres director of player personnel Bob Fontaine told sportswriter Phil Collier. “And he doesn’t bunt enough.” Ouch. It was the kind of honest assessment that has completely vacated the current game, but was still prevalent in the mid-1970s.
By 1977, Hernandez had lost the starting shortstop job to No. 1 draft pick Bill Almon. He spent much of the season on the disabled list with a bad back, making only four trips to the plate in seven appearances. After the season, he underwent back surgery, even though the Padres felt it was not necessary.
Unfortunately, Hernandez lacked the versatility to be an ideal utility infielder. In fact, he never played second base or third base in the majors. Without a clear role in place, the Padres released him during spring training in 1978. He then signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers, made a brief in-season cameo for Los Angeles, and drew his release by August. Except for continuing appearances in the Venezuelan Winter League, that would mark the end of his playing career.
Sadly, Hernandez never returned to the game, at least not in Organized Ball. He became a lost figure within the baseball network, his name rarely mentioned, with exception to the futility of his 1971 season.
Over the last year, Hernandez struggled with depression, for reasons that remain unknown to the public. I only hope that his death spurs additional research into the lives of major leaguers after their careers have ended. It is a subject worth exploring.
Death of a Pilot
Fred Talbot also died this past week. He lost a long battle with cancer at the age of 71. Talbot was a relatively unknown right-handed pitcher who struggled for much of his career with the Yankees, A’s and White Sox before finally catching on with the expansion Seattle Pilots in 1969. Yet Talbot gained national notoriety as one of Jim Bouton’s favorite topics in his bestselling Ball Four.
Talbot emerged as one of the stars of the book, largely because of his sense of humor, which combined biting sarcasm with a knack for vicious putdowns. Talbot and Bouton did not like each other, though their relationship did improve during the 1969 season. The two enjoyed antagonizing each other; they traded insults and practical jokes that bordered on the cruel. At one point, Bouton convinced Talbot that he was on the receiving end of a paternity suit. The suit turned out to be imaginary. Later in the season, Talbot swiped a cab ride from Bouton and yelled, “Take the next cab, you Communist.”
After Bouton’s book came out, an anonymous Pilot offered a particularly venomous review of Ball Four. Bouton always suspected that it was Talbot who made the remark. The anonymous Pilot claimed that Bouton’s writing could “gag a maggot.” It was all part of the memorable culture of Ball Four.
Farewell to Sportswatch
If you’ll permit me a personal note:
I used to work as a sportscaster for a radio station in upstate New York. From 1987 to 1995, I performed a variety of duties for WIBX Radio in Utica. One of my primary responsibilities involved hosting a show called “SportsWatch,” a nightly talk show that covered both the national and local sports scenes. I took turns hosting the show with Danny Clinkscale and Jim Jackson; we covered a variety of sports topics during the 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. hours, the show sometimes airing before and after live sporting events.
It was a fun show to do, with a mix of call-ins, notable guests, and heated debates between co-hosts. The format gave us a chance to do long form commentaries and gave listeners the opportunity to sound off, as we weaved national and local sports topics into the flow of the program.
We had a bevy of terrific guests, including a number of folks from the baseball world. We talked to Keith Hernandez, former Mets GM Frank Cashen, Yankees broadcaster Tony Kubek, former major leaguer Dave Cash (who hails from the Utica area), onetime World Series hero Mark Lemke, and Mets broadcaster Howie Rose, along with countless players, managers and owners of the Utica Blue Sox franchise. We frequently interviewed baseball writers, with the late Rod Beaton and Mel Antonen, two mainstays of USA Today, making frequent appearances.
Sadly, that show, which dates all the way back to 1971, has ended. The last edition of SportsWatch aired last Friday, when the current hosts announced its cancellation. In addition to the guest list, the show featured a number of notable hosts, many of whom have gone on to major markets and successes in other areas of broadcasting. The list includes Clinkscale (a fellow baseball diehard who now works for an all-sports station in Kansas City), Jackson (standout play-by-play voice of the Philadelphia Flyers), Lee Hamilton (a longtime San Diego radio presence who has done Chargers football), Tim Roye (who went on to work the NBA), and Bob Papa (the voice of the football Giants).
Additionally, Brad Davis has gone on to work radio in major market Houston, Brent Axe became a household name in Syracuse, and Adam “The Bull” Gerstenhaber has hit it big in Cleveland. What a cast!
All these alumni came from a medium-sized radio station located between Cooperstown and Syracuse. So who says that a small city in upstate New York can’t produce a memorable and lasting radio show? SportsWatch showed that it can be done.