Interview Date: December 30, 2016
Fights happen. In baseball, tempers boil over and benches clear. And while it is rare that these fights leave a lasting impression on any player’s career, there is a handful who are forever tied to them. Robin Ventura will always be remembered for fighting Nolan Ryan. Don Zimmer will always be remembered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Xavier Hernandez will always be remembered for September 5, 1995.
Astros fans love Xavier Hernandez. The “X-Man”. The hometown pitcher with incredible potential. “I grew up 90 miles east in Groves, TX, and my Dad used to bring the family to the Astrodome to watch the Astros play maybe once a year. It was usually to see them play the Dodgers, Reds or Phillies. I got Dave Concepcion and Pete Rose's autographs in 1977, still have them. So I was a big Astros fan as a kid.
Well, I got Rule 5'ed to the Astros from the Blue Jays during the winter before the 1990 season. I made the team and we broke camp and flew to Houston. The bus went to the Astrodome and I remember walking onto the field. After years of watching my favorite team from the ‘rainbow seats,’ here I was on the turf. I walked out behind second base and laid down and stared up at the roof. Wow! I did it!! A dream come true.”
His happy demeanor and love for Houston would show through, even in tough times. His teammates loved him and fans cheered him, even when he would struggle. Unfortunately, management did not care how much fans loved him. They traded him to the New York Yankees and fans assumed his impact on the Astros was over. A fan favorite lost to the American League. It only lasted for one year.
In 1995, Xavier Hernandez signed with the division rival Cincinnati Reds. Not only was he back in the National League, but he would be facing his former team multiple times throughout the season. “We had dominated the Astros all season and I am sure that they were frustrated. I came in to pitch in the 6th inning with the Astros ahead 3-1. I got 2 quick outs then gave up 3 consecutive singles, the 3rd was to the pitcher Doug Drabek, to score catcher Pat Borders. Looking at the video, when Borders came home, our catcher Benito Santiago was at the plate to receive the throw from left fielder Ron Gant and Borders gave, in what was my opinion, a cheap-shot elbow to Santiago.
Well, I wasn't too happy about giving up an RBI single to a damn pitcher and less happy about the cheap-shot to our All-Star catcher so I decided we were going to retaliate, right here, right now. The next hitter was Brian Hunter and the first pitch was a fastball that went behind him. Umpire Harry Wendelstedt immediately called time out and issued warnings to me and to both benches. The half-inning ended with Hunter striking out, but the real excitement was still to come.
Ron Gant was leading off the 7th inning and he and catcher Pat Borders had words at the plate and the next thing you know, those two guys are dropping gloves and bats and are throwing hay-makers at each other. So both benches clear, there's some pushing and shoving and finally, the order is restored and there are several ejections.
Move to the bottom of the 7th and Craig Biggio is leading off the inning. My first pitch was an inside fastball. But Craig is going into the pitch for a drag bunt and sticks his heavily padded elbow purposely out for the HBP. Well, the fans started screaming for my head but Harry Wendelstedt saw that the pitch was not intentional and did not eject me. But now I am really pissed about Biggio leaning into it, so my next pitch was up-and-in near the head of Jeff Bagwell and the ball hits his left hand. Yes, the same left hand that had been previously broken. Wendelstedt immediately ejects me but there was a tidal wave of Astros making their way to the mound to discuss with me their displeasure of me hitting their big RBI guy. This time, it's on! I got attacked from so many angles I kinda knew the feeling that General Custer must have felt at the Battle of the Little Big Horn! It was a good brawl, one of the better ones that I've been in.
During that brawl I got smoked pretty good by a big right fist from someone charging in from the bullpen. Well, that off-season, I was picking up a few item at the Sear's Hardware in Sugar Land and was at the checkout counter. The big guy behind me next in line looked familiar and I asked him, ‘Doug Brocail?’. He replied, ‘X?’
I answered, ‘You cheap-shot sonuvabitch!’
He looked at me and said, ‘Hey, that wasn't me!’
I smiled and replied, ‘Yeah it was, and I've got you on video tape.’
He smiled right back and said, ‘Yeah, OK, it was me.’ We've been friends ever since.”
Xavier Hernandez had made his mark on Astros history, and he was on the wrong side of it. But how is it that he is still remembered so fondly? “I was driving from Ohio back to Texas and I picked up a Houston Chronicle and a reporter had asked GM Gerry Hunsicker if they had any interest in me. He answered that he was not interested in signing me in light of the previous season's altercation. Well, Jeff and Craig read that and went to talk to Gerry and told him that what happened in '95 was not an issue and if I could help the Astros, then yeah, we'd love to have him. So the two guys that I drilled went to bat for me.
After the 10 day waiver period, I signed with Houston and flew to Los Angeles to meet the team on the road. I arrived at Dodger Stadium after BP and when I walked into the visitor's clubhouse, I heard someone yell, "There he is! Get Him!!" and they all mobbed me. Man it was good to be back!”