By Joe Capozzi
The Palm Beach Post
Aug. 7, 2011
On the TV screen in our living room, Hernandez, the shortstop for the Pirates, glides to his left behind second base. He cuts off a grounder up the middle at the edge of the outfield grass, plants his feet, and fires to first base.
Bob Robertson catches the throw and thrusts his arms into the air. Then, my parents and two brothers and I see something I had never seen before - players jumping for joy and piling on top of each other.
Caught up in the excitement, we grab pots and pans from the kitchen and run into the street to bang them together, our way of celebrating the Pirates' World Series victory over Baltimore on Oct. 17, 1971.
Nearly 40 years later, I'm captivated by Hernandez again.
He's 70 years old and sitting on a folding chair at a batting range five minutes from Sun Life Stadium. A cigarette between his lips, a thermos of Cuban coffee at his feet, he's pulling baseballs from a bucket and flipping them to teenagers swinging aluminum bats.
His hair is gray and a goatee frames his mouth, but he has the same wiry frame I remember in the No. 2 uniform of the '71 Bucs.
"I wanted that ball. I wanted to make that last out. Ain't nothing better than that in baseball," Hernandez shouts from his stool, recalling the last play of Game 7 of the World Series. "That was the best thing that ever happened in my life in baseball.'
Hernandez was never an All-Star or a Gold Glove winner. He batted just .208 over nine seasons, from 1965 through '73.
But he was the kind of scrappy player who made a lasting impression on my childhood in the same way Glenn Beckert did for a kid growing up in Chicago or Bobby Tolan for a kid growing up in Cincinnati or Bud Harrelson for a kid in New York.
"We celebrated for three days in Pittsburgh," Hernandez shouts through a stream of "pings" as his students swat balls into a net. "You know how (the travel time from) the airport to downtown is 40, 45 minutes? Took us five hours to get there, because from the airport to downtown there were cars and cars and people and people.'
Hernandez credits the great Roberto Clemente for getting him to Pittsburgh. After playing together in the Puerto Rican winter league, he says Clemente put in a word with the Pirates front office about a shortstop they should go after.
After Pittsburgh got Hernandez in a trade with the Kansas City Royals before the '71 season, he made an error in one of his first games for the Pirates.
"Ball went right through my legs and we lost the game,' he says. "When I got to the dugout, I was crying. Clemente put his arm over my shoulder and said, 'No, no. You don't need to do that. We back you up here.' After that, my head was up every minute.'
Hernandez returned to Pittsburgh in June for a 40th anniversary celebration when the Pirates hosted an interleague series with the Orioles.
He still sees many of his old teammates and baseball friends in Miami. They often visit the batting range he has operated for 17 years with close friend and Cuban countryman Paul Casanova, a catcher for the Washington Senators and Atlanta Braves from 1965-74.
An hour into his lesson, Hernandez stamps out a cigarette and tells his kids to take a break. It's time for him to pose for a photographer, who instructs him to hold a bat.
Four snaps into the shoot, Hernandez suddenly drops down to bunt, momentarily startling the photographer the same way he used to surprise Bob Gibson or Tom Seaver.
"This was my specialty,' Hernandez says, grinning between hunched shoulders.
And for a moment, it's 1971 again.