Hernandez not upset to be off Hall ballot

Staff photo by Noah Feit USC Aiken baseball coach Kenny Thomas, left, and former Pacer great Roberto Hernandez stand in front of a new turf logo behind home plate at Roberto Hernandez Stadium on the first day of practice.

Roberto Hernandez is in town this week for the start of the USC Aiken baseball season. The former major league relief pitcher and Pacer great was on hand at the stadium bearing his name Thursday for USCA’s first practice of the spring semester.

While Hernandez had the opportunity to look ahead to the Pacers’ upcoming season, he also had the chance to reflect on his career a day after being included on the ballot for baseball’s Hall of Fame for the first time. Hernandez, a two-time All-Star who played for 10 big-league teams, didn’t garner enough support to remain on the ballot. He was thrilled about being included, though.

“It’s an honor for me,” Hernandez said. “Just to be named and be on the ballot, I’m tickled pink, and my family was thrilled.”

Hernandez wasn’t as enthusiastic about the baseball writers’ decision not to elect any players to the Hall of Fame this year. While the spectre of performance-enhancing drug use overshadowed some of this year’s big-name candidates – like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens – Hernandez was adamant that there were other players who should have been elected.

“I’m disappointed. There are guys who automatically should have been in,” Hernandez said, specifically sighting Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza as more-than-deserving first-time candidates. He alluded that other players should also be considered in spite of rumors. “Some have a cloud but were Hall of Famers before PEDs. And how do you prove it? The suspicion is always there, but you can’t deny the numbers that some guys put up are incredible.”

Hernandez didn’t receive a vote, therefore isn’t eligible to remain on the ballot next year. He said he would have liked a little support but didn’t have any expectations about going to Cooperstown this summer for induction.

“I just wanted one vote. I’m happy to be in the same breath with a lot of these guys,” the former closer said with a smile, before explaining why he knew garnering any support would be difficult. “The guy who was the all-time leader in saves didn’t get in. That’s Lee Smith, and he’s got near 500 saves. So I had the understanding that I knew I had no chance.

“That doesn’t bother me. That’s not why I played. I was a guy who worked hard, fought, was a good teammate and left it all on the field.”

Hernandez played in the majors from 1991-2007. He appeared in 1,010 games, amassing a 67-71 record with 326 saves and 945 strikeouts. Hernandez finished in the top 10 in Cy Young Award voting twice and had six seasons where he recorded 30-plus saves, including a career-best 43 in 1999 pitching for Tampa Bay. He still works for the Rays as an advisor who helps the club’s relievers throughout their system – from the farm teams to the majors.

Hernandez said he works primarily with the club’s younger players on teaching them as much about off-the-field aspects of being a professional baseball player as he does on pitching mechanics.

“They’re human and will struggle. I help them learn how to deal with that,” said Hernandez, who will also work with big leaguers to fix flaws in their game. “(Rays manager) Joe Maddon will give me projects. I’m not a coach or a psychologist. I just try to win guy’s confidence and help them out.”

Among Hernandez’s success stories are Jake McGee and Fernando Rodney, who had one of the greatest single-season comebacks last season. Hernandez said Rodney improved his fastball control and had a season where he recorded 48 saves last year, was named an All-Star and finished fifth in Cy Young Award voting and 13th in MVP balloting. When he heads to spring training next month, Hernandez will get a unique opportunity. He expects to work with Roberto Hernandez.

He isn’t making a comeback, but will work with the player formerly known as Fausto Carmona, who was revealed to actually be named Roberto Hernandez as well after falsifying documents about his age and identity. The younger Hernandez is a former All-Star who has fallen off from his best days and could be a reclamation project for the Rays this season, especially with USCA’s Hernandez offering tutelage.

“I just going to try to be his friend and pick his brain,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez will also continue offer some of his sage advice to one of the Pacers’ new players. His son, Roberto Hernandez Jr. is on the USCA baseball team, but the pitcher will redshirt his year as a freshman. From dad’s point of view, that’s the best thing.

“I’m happy he chose to come here. (Because of injuries including a torn ACL) he’s behind everybody, so he’ll get to see how the program is run and learn from good pitching coaches,” Hernandez said. “He’s a hard worker and a good kid with a good arm. But he has to wait until his time. He’s not going to get anything handed to him because of his name. He has to go out and earn it.”

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.