Keith Hernandez has a bum knee. The former Mets first baseman will receive a partial replacement this summer. In the meantime, he’s icing it with a homemade contraption and wearing Crocs.
In the past, dedicated Mets fans might have learned this while watching the team play. Keith’s foibles make up a surprisingly substantial portion of each broadcast, and it’s easy to imagine talk turning to his aches and pains in the eighth inning of an early-May blowout. (It often does, unless he’s talking about the steak he’s planning to eat after the game.) But fans won’t have to wait for the knee conversation. They already know that Keith’s knee is bad, because Keith posted about it on Instagram.
Before it’s added to MoMA’s permanent collection, let’s examine this photograph:
Witness Hernandez, 63-year-old bon vivant, broadcaster, and proud cat owner, posing with what he calls his “machine”: the portable cooler, filled with ice and attached by hose to a knee wrap, that he uses to keep the swelling down on his knee. He’s in Port St. Lucie, the backwater Florida town where the Mets hold spring training. His turquoise polo, sunglasses with Croakies, reading glasses, and black Crocs suggest that, like many New Yorkers of a certain age, he’s an extremely accomplished part-time Florida resident.
Now he’s a minor internet sensation, too. Along with Gary Cohen and Ron Darling, his colleagues for the past 12 years calling Mets games, he is now the proud co-owner of his very first social media account. Baseball’s best booth — comprised of three analog practitioners of a craft generally done by the old, grumpy, and obdurate — has entered the digital age head first (and only half a decade late). They’re on Instagram now; the account is @garykeithron, operated jointly by the three broadcasters and a helpful gang of app-literate SportsNet New York employees.
The announcers are loving it, even if they don’t totally know what’s going on.
“It was not my idea,” Hernandez told me by phone from Florida. “I have no idea whose idea it was. I was just told about it a couple of weeks ago when we initiated it. It seemed like a good idea.”
The fans seem to agree: Since launching in early March, the account has racked up more than 16,000 followers. Keith Hernandez’s Crocs are going viral.
Every broadcast team has an intimate relationship with the fans of the team that employs them. This will happen when you are beamed into a million living rooms four times a week to call a game. The bond between Gary, Keith, and Ron and the Flushing faithful runs a bit deeper. Part of that is their history with the team: Hernandez and Darling were integral members of the 1986 World Series–winning Mets, and Cohen spent his youth rooting for the team. (Seriously: Find me someone else who knows more about Ed Kranepool.)
“Not every game is a nail biter,” Hernandez explains. “Sometimes our job is to hold an audience when it’s 8–0 and the Mets are losing in the third inning. It happens. We don’t want people turning off the channel.”
Let this Mets fan tell you: It does happen. But there’s a more complex broadcaster-fan alchemy at work, too. Mets fans love these guys.
The Instagram account is a collaboration between the game production team and SNY’s digital group, led by Fred Harner, who explains that it works only due to the booth’s specific history.
“They’re not just three guys calling the game,” Harner says. “They’re a booth of people that [fans have] been watching for years and years now and feel very close to.”
And with good reason. Hernandez has always shared his preference for a big, hearty, spicy red wine; when former Atlanta Brave Hunter Cervenka took the field last year, Cohen and Darling chatted reverentially about the seminal ’80s punk band X, fronted by Exene Cervenka — no relation to Hunter. (Keith is not familiar with their music.) The three have chemistry above and beyond that of your average booth, and the fans are hungry for as much of it as they can get. SNY regularly delves into the announcers’ personal lives with photo collages and video montages during game broadcasts, and the Mets fan blog Amazin’ Avenue runs a weekly roundup of the gang’s foibles.
“I don’t know that there’s another booth in baseball that could do this successfully,” Harner says.
@garykeithron doesn’t feel like a corporate branding initiative dreamed up and maintained by a television executive and his staffers, even though that is exactly what it is. Instead, it feels like a glimpse into the lives of a few old friends. Let me know when your preferred corporate branding initiative features Keith Hernandez’s cat Hadji lounging in the Florida sun.
Ron Darling is unfamiliar with #throwbackthursday.
“I think I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know what it means,” he tells me from Fort Lauderdale.
It’s a popular hashtag on Instagram, I explain, that people use to accompany older photos of themselves. Ron likes the concept: “I’m gonna put that down on my notepad — or my notes on my phone — because I think that would be an outstanding idea.”
Let the record show that Ron Darling is a committed and increasingly skilled social media user, because less than a week after we speak, this photo appears on their account:
That’s play-by-play man Gary Cohen, way back in his college days at Columbia University. (Cohen, I should point out, now looks like this.) The Cohen photo is a sort of skeleton key for the @garykeithron account. It first appeared last summer, during the broadcast of a late-August game against the St. Louis Cardinals. “He’s ready for the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar,” Darling exclaimed at the time. Now, he cites it as “one of the biggest moments” of their 12 years as a broadcasting crew — the one non-player among them, without a public archive of dated GQ covers, revealed to have been a grade-A college bro.
The idea behind the Instagram account, Hernandez and Darling both say, is to give fans glimpses like this into their lives outside the ballpark, and to shake things up a little bit while they’re at it.
“This is our 12th year,” Darling explains. “We built up a fan base. I think people are [thinking], ‘OK, we hear them all the time, but what else can they give us?’ So I think the timing might be right. And, I don’t know, maybe we’re getting a little bored and we need something to rejuvenate us. And so far this has been just a blast.”
Flipping through the account produces a feeling not unlike the one you get when you learn that your mom is on Instagram. The three have that particular combination of charming guilelessness and helpless technophobia that marks the later-in-life gadget adopter. The guys take the photos themselves, and then send them to a few SNY staffers who know how to get them onto the internet.
“I haven’t even seen the account,” Hernandez admits. “I don’t even know how to bring it up. I don’t have it on my [phone].”
Darling is more familiar with the app, citing Kevin Hart, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Empire’s Taraji P. Henson as inspirations. “I follow Kevin Hart for the laughs, although his working-out pictures are starting to sway me to maybe not follow,” he explains.
These are not painstakingly produced photos. They’re not meant to be, SNY’s Harner explains: “This isn’t me or anybody else in New York telling them what to go out and shoot each day.”
The result is refreshingly candid: a few poorly focused photos of old men and their friends bobbing in a sea of airbrushed #influencer content. Keith, in particular, seems like a budding social media star. Here he is fishing for a parking ticket he lost in the dashboard of his car:
And here he is wearing Crocs in a golf cart, a living shrug emoji:
Keith gets into the most harmless kind of trouble what seems like all the time; I look forward to dispatches from the Time Keith Gets Stuck in the Bathroom and the Time Keith Wears Two Left Crocs.
“The shenanigans or the misfortunes or whatever are part of what makes Keith amazing,” Darling says, fondly. “Here’s this guy that’s probably one of the most intelligent guys I’ve ever been around, and he’s the best baseball player I ever played with. He can field a one-hopper at 120 miles per hour off the bat, but he can’t remember where his keys are. I find that so human.”
Spring training is a time for the frivolous: Cory Seager’s abominable diet, Yoenis Céspedes’s ridiculous ranch, this cutesy Instagram account run by three old dudes. The trio will keep the account going during the season, refreshing it with photos of Darling’s infant son and Cohen’s #TBTs and Hernandez’s mishaps. Mets fans will follow along at home; the best booth in baseball will claim some small portion of viral fame.
And don’t be surprised if it factors into the booth’s next round of contract negotiations. When I tell Keith just how many people are following the account, he’s shocked.
“Sixteen thousand?!” he asks. “We should get paid for that.”
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Instagram account was a creation of SNY’s Fred Harner; it is a collaboration between the game production team and SNY’s digital group.