How Keith Hernandez’s epic Seinfeld cameo came to be: ‘I was petrified’

This week The Post takes a fresh look at the “best of” New York sports history — areas that are just as worthy of debate, but that haven’t been argued incessantly. Today’s edition: the best cameo in pop culture.  It was a day like any other day in Keith Hernandez’s post-baseball life. The career was …

This week The Post takes a fresh look at the “best of” New York sports history — areas that are just as worthy of debate, but that haven’t been argued incessantly. Today’s edition: the best cameo in pop culture. 

It was a day like any other day in Keith Hernandez’s post-baseball life. The career was in the books, the end hastened by a balky back, and it was a terrific run: Two championships, one in St. Louis and one in New York. A share of the ’79 MVP. Eleven Gold Gloves. A .296 lifetime average, 2,182 hits.

Now, he spent a lot of time in that winter of 1991-92 asking himself one question:

“What now?”

Then the telephone rang in his Manhattan apartment: It was Scott Boras, his friend and agent. Boras cut to the chase.

“You have an opportunity to do a sitcom episode. It’s a show called ‘Seinfeld.’ Have you heard of it?”

Hernandez was still practicing a ballplayer’s nocturnal itinerary: There was little time to keep up with prime-time TV when you had a game every night. He knew about the show. He hadn’t watched. But he was intrigued. Boras told him the gig paid $15,000. Sold.

“I got the call on Thursday,” Hernandez recalls. “Scott FedEx-ed me the script Friday. And by Saturday, I was on a plane to Los Angeles.”

It didn’t take long for Hernandez, one of the coolest athletes New York had ever seen, to be struck by a most unfamiliar sensation: pure, unvarnished terror. When the script arrived he realized this wasn’t some one-off scene-stealing spot; this was a full-blown “guest star” gig.

“What,” he asked, “have I gotten myself into?”

Hernandez had never been bashful seeking advice when he was a baseball player, often relying on his father for counsel. And he had a friend, Marsha Mason, who also happened to be a four-time Academy Award nominee for Best Actress. The first thing he needed to do was memorize his lines. She had a trick for him.

“Memorize Line 1,” she said. “Then memorize Line 1, plus 2. Then Lines 1, 2 plus 3.”

And so on.

“And work on the lines every night before you go to bed. This way they percolate in your mind while you’re sleeping.”

Hernandez remembers: “Of course, by the time I landed in LA, I hadn’t only memorized all of my lines, but all of everyone’s lines. I knew the whole script by heart. But I also knew this: I was playing myself. There was no need to try and be Brando.”

Keith Hernandez (l) and Jerry Seinfeld.TBS

The week in LA was a blur: exhilarating, exhausting, terrifying. Seinfeld was gregarious from the start, not surprising since it was his idea to recruit his favorite player from his favorite team for the quintessentially Seinfeld-ian plot of the show, which would become “The Boyfriend”:

Jerry and George meet Keith in a gym … before Jerry can approach Keith, Keith recognizes Jerry and says they should get together … Jerry behaves like a smitten schoolgirl explaining his new friend to Elaine … and Elaine winds up going on a date with Keith, and Elaine recognizes Jerry is jealous but wonders “are you jealous of him or me?” … and in a classic subplot it turns out Kramer and Newman have resented Hernandez for years for an incident after a 1987 Mets game … which Jerry disproves by channeling Jim Garrison and “JFK” … and the friendship then stalls when Keith asks Jerry to help him move …

Got all that?

There was more. It’s easy to forget but the show Hernandez parachuted in for was only 33 episodes into its run, it had a small and loyal niche audience but was nowhere near the pop-culture behemoth it would become. The crew was never certain of the show’s future and, in fact, co-creator Larry David believed this hour-long episode might well be its make-or-break moment.

“He was nice enough not to tell me that until later,” Hernandez says. “I was petrified enough.”

What David did share was the importance of real laughter, not a laugh track, for full impact. So Hernandez, rookie thespian, wouldn’t only have to summon lines, figure out believable facial expressions, hit marks … he’d require some on-point comic timing, also.

Seinfeld saw he was nervous. “You’re Keith Hernandez! You played baseball in front of 50,000 people! There’s 200 people here, how hard is that?”

Maybe that helped later, when in a voice-over Hernandez delivered the show’s signature line expertly: “I’m Keith Hernandez!”

The show aired for the first time on NBC on Feb. 12, 1992, and was an immediate hit, going directly into the early canon of must-see episodes, which already included “The Chinese Restaurant” and would within a year add “The Contest” and, later, countless others. Seinfeld has long said “The Boyfriend” is his favorite of the show’s 180 episodes. In 1997 TV Guide ranked it fourth on the list of “100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time.”

For Hernandez — who insists he’s only seen the episode twice (“I’m still too nervous!”) — it was a career catapult; he was always going to be revered by Mets fans, but this provided a level of fame even baseball never offered. He eventually settled comfortably into a broadcasting career, still enjoys the annual residual checks from the show, usually around $3,000 or so. When he wrote a book in 2017 there was little question what the title would be: “I’m Keith Hernandez.”

“I never thought it would have the legs it’s had,” he says. “It really is astonishing.”

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