Kike Hernandez's Heroics Inspire MLB Family, Puerto Ricans Devastated by Maria

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 26, 2017

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 19:  Enrique Hernandez #14 of the Los Angeles Dodgers rounds the bases after hitting a home run in the ninth inning against the Chicago Cubs during game five of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 19, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Wheels up. It wouldn't be long now. Three epic home runs behind him and a historic World Series in front of him, Enrique Hernandez paused amid the champagne and chaos. Slow this moment down, he told himself. His eyes were red. His heart was full.

He was looking for a hug. He was searching for his father. On this night, it would be one-stop shopping. He hadn't seen him since the final out of the best game of his career, and one of the most memorable in the history of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The NLCS-clinching Game 5 ended 90 minutes ago. Soon, the team charter flight would be airborne, moving this celebration from Wrigley Field into the big westbound jet, 30,000 feet in the air. But first, he was going to find Enrique Hernandez Sr., and when he did, the man known as Kike would lose himself in one of those wrap-your-arms-tight-and-shut-out-the-rest-of-the-world hugs.

"If I didn't have the dad that I have, I wouldn't be here right now," Hernandez said. "I don't know if I'd even be playing baseball."


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Wheels up. It wasn't long ago, and yet it still feels like yesterday. Hurricane Maria had ravished Kike's homeland, darkening the entire island of Puerto Rico. There was no power. No drinkable water. The strongest hurricane in almost 90 years left a full-blown humanitarian crisis that remains today, one month after landfall.

Within days, Carlos Beltran tossed out a lifeline on the group chat that the MLB players who played for Puerto Rico's World Baseball Classic team continued to conduct all summer long. He had spoken with Houston's owner, and Jim Crane was on board. Crane would dispatch a couple of jets with supplies to the island, and another to ferry people out of the destruction and back to the United States.

"My family was able to get out on that plane," Hernandez explained. "My fiancee's entire family was able to get out on that plane. Mr. Crane was extremely generous for what he did. There was no reason for him to do all of what he did for my people back home."

Then Hernandez, his voice cracking, uttered those resounding words that will echo throughout this Houston-Los Angeles World Series, and beyond.

"There's still some good people in the world, man."

Beltran, who quickly donated $1 million of his own money to the relief efforts, approached Crane practically before the winds died down and the damage was fully known in Puerto Rico.

"We'll make it happen," Crane told him.

"It was a quick response, actions right away," Beltran said. "He put me in contact with his company and we were able to move a lot of things quickly."

Together, Beltran and others collected about 500,000 pounds of donations. Crane supplied the airplanes and the schematics. He also supplied a charter passenger plane straight from San Juan to Houston's Hobby Airport. Roughly 100 passengers were aboard, including, among many others, family members of Beltran, Astros bench coach Alex Cora, Cleveland Indians star shortstop Francisco Lindor and Hernandez. 

"It was just something we knew how to do," Crane says, modestly. "We had luckily raised a bunch of money when we had the big disaster here in Houston [Hurricane Harvey], and we diverted some of that cash to help pay for all that."

For Hernandez, it was a summer filled with emotions. He just missed Maria, leaving Puerto Rico the day before the hurricane made landfall after attending the funeral of his grandfather, Enrique Sr.'s father.

He died a year after Enrique Sr. had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

"He's had a rough last two years," Kike said. "Last year, the entire season, he was dealing with cancer. He got cancer, and he kicked cancer's ass."

Now, Kike would share with his father their greatest baseball moment.

"I learned to watch the game through him," Hernandez said. "He sacrificed jobs, he even lost jobs to be there for me growing up. He sat me down one time and said, 'I'm never going to force you to play this game, but if you're serious about it, I'm all-in with you.' He meant every single word of that.

"I was able to get to the big leagues when a lot of people told me I was never going to make it to the big leagues. Not only did I make it, but I helped my team get to the World Series."

Crane's generosity wasn't Hernandez's first brush with the Astros. The baseball world is sprawling, but common threads are pervasive. Hernandez's first professional steps came after Houston, of all teams, made him its sixth-round draft pick in 2009.

He climbed through the minors side by side with Astros center fielder and leadoff man George Springer and made his MLB debut in 2014 on a team that included Jose Altuve.

"Good teammate," recalled Altuve, who watched Hernandez's Game 5 heroics and thought back to those days when they both were young and oblivious to the notion that a near-term World Series could include both of them. "I felt really happy for him because he deserves it. It couldn't happen to a better guy."

Said Springer: "Great dude. He means well. He always has your back. He has a lot of fun, his whole antics, his shenanigans. He plays the game as if he's in his backyard."

The Astros shipped Hernandez to Miami at the July trade deadline in 2014, including him in a package that brought back outfielder Jake Marisnick, two minor leaguers and a 2015 draft compensation pick. Then that December, in his first major deal as president of baseball operations in Los Angeles, Andrew Friedman acquired Hernandez as part of a seven-player deal that also brought catcher Austin Barnes and pitchers Chris Hatcher and Andrew Heaney to the Dodgers in exchange for second baseman Dee Gordon, pitchers Dan Haren and Miguel Rojas and cash.

Friedman joked the other night that the trade came with just that Game 5 moment in mind, a three-homer game in the NLCS.

Depth is what these Dodgers pride themselves on, and the multidimensional Hernandez is Exhibit A. He played every position this season but pitcher and catcher. In 140 games, he batted .215/.308/.421 with 11 homers and 37 RBI. He is not an everyday player, yet manager Dave Roberts sometimes deploys him as the club's cleanup hitter. That's where he was when lightning struck in Chicago.

The "shenanigans" Springer talks about? Hernandez specializes in making those around him smile and laugh, sometimes with clever and colorful usage of, uh, let's just say inappropriate words, other times with more elaborate schemes. If he isn't the class clown, his is the next desk over in the seating chart. Like that time in 2015 when, working to lighten things up, he appeared in the dugout in full uniform and a banana costume.

"That's Kike," Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson said. "Comedian. He dances. He runs his mouth. He's pretty funny."

"He's really special," Carlos Correa, the Astros' All-Star shortstop, said. "He made everybody in Puerto Rico very proud. I felt so proud for him. People talk about the way guys were batting [for the Dodgers], Yasiel Puig, Justin Turner, Clay Bellinger, and then he does that.

"It's all such a dream. A guy from Puerto Rico makes his dream come true."

All of it hit home this week, as a sold-out Dodger Stadium showed Hernandez and his teammates the appreciation that comes with the franchise's first World Series appearance in 29 years, and when Hernandez sent an incredible Game 2 into the 11th inning with a two-out, RBI single in the bottom of the 10th. On his cap, in marker, he has written "Pray4Puerto Rico." And thanks to the quick reflexes of the guy who owns the team the Dodgers will try to beat, Hernandez's father, healthy, bursting with pride and currently a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was right there in Dodger Stadium along with Kike's mother.

"Kike's a good guy," Crane said. "I'm glad his family was on board. We had some disabled people in wheelchairs and some young kids, and some poor [folks] who had two little babies who were just two months old, twins. It was just whoever could make it and wanted to get out.

"I told the guys, listen, if it were my family, I would recommend you get them out because you don't know when you're going to get stuff back up and running, and they're still having trouble getting stuff back up.

"So we just tried to help out. It was the right thing to do. We were concerned."

Since those rescue missions, MLB also has sent a couple of planeloads of supplies to aid its friends in Puerto Rico, including one more a couple of weeks back.

So, wheels up on a World Series that brings with it more layers than usual. Hernandez is in the middle of a stage that is grander than most, looking for fastballs to drive and, yes, hunting for just the right moment for something else, too.

"Hopefully," said Hernandez who finally found and hugged his father in the Wrigley Field family room, "I can go up to him and say, 'Hey, Mr. Crane, I know that you traded me, but thanks for getting my people out, my family out of Puerto Rico when they needed to get out of there.'

"It was amazing."

        

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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