The ink snakes up Raul Hernandez’s left arm, melding into a clean tattoo of a capital H across his bicep. It’s the Honda Motors symbol. He used to steal them — Honda cars. But that was a long time ago. Before he got out of Lakewood, New Jersey. Before a local cop and coach spotted him walking his stepsons to baseball practice each week and invited him to work with the kids. And before he had a son of his own to consider.
Hernandez, 29, is the manager of Palm Coast Little League’s 11-and-12-year-old all-star team. His son Anthony is the starting shortstop. Already crowned District 19 champions, they traveled to St. Augustine on Saturday and took second place in the sectional tournament.
I’ll be around
It’s Thursday, 8:45 p.m. and the Hernandez boys still aren’t home. Stacey, Raul’s wife of 11 years, tosses two trays in the oven for dinner, which tonight consists of chicken patty sandwiches and tater tots. She’s still dressed in the congo pink scrubs she wears for her job at a local podiatrist’s office.
“He just doesn’t know when to quit,” she says.
A few minutes later, Raul and Anthony file in through the garage door. They’re dusty and tired after a long batting practice session. Raul knows months of these practices (the season started in January) are potential fodder for marital arguments. But on this one particular issue — time spent playing baseball with his sons — he’s not about to budge.
“I know what it’s like to want someone to be there,” he says.
Hernandez spent much of his childhood in foster care, living for a time with the grandparents of a close friend. When that arrangement didn’t pan out, he was returned to the custody of his parents, who were both drug addicts. If he wanted to play a sport growing up, he had to make the team. One season he went out for soccer but couldn’t afford cleats; instead he was forced to rely on the altruism of strangers.
“Like magic, one day there was a brand new pair of cleats waiting for me at the field,” he recalled.
Back in the Hernandez’s R-section home, Stacey’s on the laptop, browsing summer baseball camps and wood-bat league opportunities for Anthony, 13, and Raul Jr., 8. Both parents work full-time; Raul builds boat docks for JC Marine. All of their free time is sapped by an addiction, too — creating opportunities for their boys that they never had themselves.
Nothing for granted
Hernandez was 15, a freshman at Neptune High School who cut class and struggled to keep up his grades. And then, “Then he had this bonehead,” Anthony interrupts, slapping his dad on the shoulder and taking his seat at the dinner table. He's referring to himself.
Stacey already had two sons, Nelson and Alberto, from a previous relationship and had just endured a separation. She knew how young Raul was and didn’t expect him to step up just because she became pregnant. But he did.
“He never took anything for granted, and he knew that I didn’t need him to do it — that I could have done it on my own,” she recalled. “He just stepped up and said, ‘We have to do it together, and I’m not leaving. They’re going to have their mom and their dad.’”
So, Raul got his work papers together (a necessity since he was underage) and got a job at Dots, a Lakewood clothing store. Stacey’s friend hooked him up with the gig, and it wasn’t ideal. But it was a paycheck.
“It’s funny, a lot of people that came in the store thought I was gay, because it was exclusively women’s clothing,” Raul Hernandez said. “Until they talked to me, of course. But it’s OK — to each his own.”
The vices of his younger days — carefully avoiding newer model cars installed with LoJack systems while swiping and swapping whatever modified engines he could get his hands on — just didn’t make sense anymore.
“I was a lot younger then,” Hernandez said. “It got to a point where you had to prioritize. Being out running around, drag racing, hanging out, being home late, going to work, raising kids. It doesn’t really work that well.”
‘A fresh start’
July 16 was Anthony Hernandez’s 13th birthday. It’s a milestone Raul is glad occurred in Palm Coast. He moved his family here in 2012, not wanting his children to get swept up in the Lakewood’s underworld culture of crime and gangs that affects kids as young as middle school, he says.
Case in point. Hernandez’s neighbors back in Lakewood have a son who recently graduated from college, despite some “close encounters” in the old neighborhood; he was stabbed and attended a party that ended in a showering of gunfire, on separate occasions.
“It was a way to give (my family) a fresh start around a lot more positive things,” Hernandez said of the move. “Lakewood’s tough, man.”
Occasionally, he checks in on kids — good kids — he coached back in New Jersey. Now, their social media profiles are littered with pictures of being “turnt up” (drunk or high) or other illegal references. Those influences can find kids everywhere, Hernandez admits. But Palm Coast gives his children the best atmosphere they can hope for. He hopes his own experiences, and his own relative youth, will help him to stay close and communicate openly with Anthony and Raul Jr. during their formative years.
Anthony, who’s a student at Buddy Taylor Middle, “is a 13-year-old kid who thinks he knows it all, and they don’t realize they don’t know everything,” Hernandez said. “To get a little information from somebody who’s already had experience in those situations is good. I want him to make the right choices.”
'The ultimate reward’
Years ago, a Lakewood cop named Ralph Hat gave Hernandez an opportunity to help out coaching his stepsons’ team. That one act started a chain reaction. Hernandez never played much baseball himself, so he watched and learned from the better coaches in the league. He used the day-to-day of coaching to turn his own life around; soon he was old enough and could pass the background checks required to coach his own teams.
“That response you get from a child, that happiness you see — I kind of longed for that as a kid,” Hernandez said. “To see other kids get it, and for me to be a part of giving it to them, that’s the ultimate reward in itself. Everything else is just icing on the cake."
Inside the third base dugout at McDonald’s Stadium in St. Augustine on Saturday, Hernandez performs a different kind of youth counseling. This time, the dangerous influence stands on the mound for Port St. John Little League, and his weapon of choice is a 70 MPH fastball from the left side — threatening to derail Palm Coast’s hopes for a sectional win.
“He throws hard, but with all that power, it’s hard to control it,” he tells his huddled team before its first at-bat. They’re words of prophecy. The first four Palm Coast batters draw walks, and Declan Mock smacks a single up the middle that turns into a bases-clearing error when the ball skirts under the center fielder’s glove.
The Hernandez-baseball-acumen gene extends to Ant, who was one of the runners to score during a four-run first inning.
“His knuckleball is nice,” he tells teammates after touching up.
“He has a knuckleball?”
“Yeah,” Ant replies, “He’s got a knuckleball.”
There are other signs that this is a well-coached team. After a blooper falls just behind Ant at shortstop, the infield hangs up the runner between first and second and executes a perfect rundown — each fielder replaces his throw in the pickle, and it only takes a few tosses before the tag is made. It’s a play beyond their years.
Hernandez “just tries to get the best out of the kids,” said Joe Piazza, one of the team’s assistant coaches. “And he teaches them the game. Every day we’re out there for two or three hours (practicing).”
Palm Coast wins, 4-1, and Hernandez does something he’s not accustomed to, singling out Mock (who also threw a complete game) and handing him the game ball. It’s a simple gesture, considering the game has given Hernandez so much more.
“Youth baseball saved my life,” he said. “It honestly saved my life.”