The noon sun belts out high heat as a bleary-eyed Felix Hernandez drags himself from his bedroom. An entire morning has passed since his...
VALENCIA, Venezuela — The noon sun belts out high heat as a bleary-eyed Felix Hernandez drags himself from his bedroom.
An entire morning has passed since his first wake-up call, from a rooster serenading him just outside the door. Now, the voices from downstairs, in the only true home Hernandez has ever known, finally convince the Mariners pitcher he’d best show his face.
His girlfriend, Mariella, has been up for hours, tending to the couple’s 16-month-old daughter, Mia. The smell of his favorite meal, beans and spaghetti, wafts throughout the cramped house from the kitchen where his parents, Mirian and Felix, busy themselves with the day’s chores.
Into this fray trudges a yawning, eye-rubbing Hernandez, his backward baseball cap and tank top completing a look more suited to a late-rising college student still living off mom and dad than a millionaire major-league baseball star. That’s because Hernandez, despite his growing fame, fatherhood and more money than his family had ever seen before, is in many ways still just a 20-year-old kid.
And the one place he can be exactly what he is, away from the prying eyes of those expecting a larger-than-life persona, is right here in the house where he was raised.
“All I do all day is sleep and watch TV,” Hernandez says with a shrug and a grin. “I don’t even want to think about baseball. Sleeping and watching TV. That’s what I want to do.”
It’s still just the second week in October, soon after Hernandez’s first full Mariners season, in which he posted a team-high 12 victories. The desire for some down time after the 162-game schedule is overwhelming, and his family patiently obliges his skipped mornings and lazy afternoons.
Hernandez returns each winter to this industrial South American city of 1.4 million people, about 100 miles southwest of Caracas. His father bought the family’s two-level home 23 years ago with his savings as a truck driver and — despite some remodeling — little about it has changed. Life here isn’t much different for Hernandez now than it was in his early teens. The simplicity of it all would shock many fans in the United States.
While he drives a Ford Explorer, it’s not all that uncommon in this oil-rich country, where public transit is woefully inefficient and gasoline costs about 12 cents a gallon. Hernandez also recently bought his own two-story home about a half-hour’s drive away, though it won’t be ready until December.
It means, for now, that his life is still suspended in somewhat of a time warp.
A star in trophies only
His family’s home is cramped, with an oversized wood table taking up much of the kitchen. Farther back is a walled-off, outdoor barbecue area, with empty beer crates on the concrete floor, a washing machine off to the side and a full line of clothes strung up and drying in the sun. Next to a cluttered living room, in a small hallway, is a display of trophies and medals featuring the accomplishments of Felix and his brother, Moises, a year older and a pitcher in the Atlanta Braves’ system.
“These are my favorites,” Hernandez proclaims, pointing out mounted baseballs from his first big-league game, his first complete game and his first shutout. “I like to look at these every once in a while. Sometimes, I can’t believe it all.”
Hernandez sleeps on the second floor, accessible by a narrow, outdoor staircase in the back. There is a small pen outside his door for the rooster and a chicken his father keeps as pets.
The bedroom where he’ll spend so much of each morning is stark, with unpainted walls decorated with Hernandez’s diplomas from Jose Austria High School in Valencia. His double bed holds a simple foam mattress, shoved next to a twin so he and his girlfriend have more room. The television is a bulky, 13-inch model, perched atop a unit of stacked shelves. About the only sign of any celebrity trappings are the dozen pairs of sports shoes in a metal cabinet.
“I’m not famous,” the ballplayer protests while making his bed, which is covered by one of those blankets given away by the Mariners in fan promotions. “Please, don’t call me famous because I’m not famous.”
And indeed, even in this baseball-crazed country, his modesty seems genuine.
Armed and dangerous
A drive through the working-class neighborhood of Fundación Valencia, where Hernandez has lived his entire life, finds no billboards proclaiming him a native son. The nearby Little League ballpark, where he became a local legend by throwing 90 miles-per-hour fastballs as a 14-year-old, isn’t renamed in his honor.
The family home is slightly bigger than the typical single-level dwellings in the vicinity and is easily visible because of the reddish tiles that trim a white exterior. But there are no gawkers standing outside, or creeping slowly by in their cars. No autograph seekers trailing Hernandez when he walks his two dogs, a pit bull terrier named “Oriole” and a feisty, fist-sized shitsu dubbed “King.”
“The people here respect my privacy,” Hernandez says.
And that’s always a welcome thing when you’re wealthy and still living amongst the masses in modern-day Venezuela.
Valencia is the country’s third-largest city and only marginally less dangerous than Caracas, which has the world’s highest per capita homicide rate and where kidnappings and robberies commonly occur in broad daylight. On this particular morning, truckers block the highway leading to Valencia from the nearby city of Maracay to protest frequent hijackings by a local gang leader the police won’t arrest.
Hernandez’s neighborhood, while quieter than the skyscraper-filled downtown, is by no means exclusive and has its share of drunks, beggars and would-be muggers and extortionists prowling the streets.
“I don’t let him go out at night,” his mother says, shaking her head. “It’s too dangerous.”
His father adds: “We try to give him advice all the time, to explain to him how the situation is in Venezuela and what he should be doing. Or shouldn’t be doing.”
A big boy on the porch
His parents say their own lives haven’t changed too drastically because of their son. They know about the September 2004 kidnapping in Caracas of the mother of former Detroit Tigers closer Ugueth Urbina, held for five months before being rescued. But they have no plans to move to some of the city’s more secure neighborhoods, sealed off by electronic gates or monitored by security guards.
“Sometimes, we do see a difference,” his mother says. “Some people will ask us for signed balls and other things from Felix. I don’t know what to think about that, really.
“When Felix was younger, sometimes I would take him and Moises to baseball games and I would tell them no soft drinks. We had money for the tickets, but not for the drinks. For many years, nobody around here helped us out, but now they want us to do things for them.”
There are cage-like bars surrounding the home’s covered front porch, accessible only through a gate that stays locked. If not for those, anyone could wander off the street and sidle up to Hernandez, because he spends much of his day on the porch.
Hernandez wiles away porch time reading newspapers while sprawled out on a sofa, or playing with the daughter he has barely seen since spring training began. Her toys are spread across the porch, having multiplied from some of the stock in the 11 suitcases worth of clothes and goods Hernandez brought back from the United States.
“I paid $1,300 in duties,” he says.
Hernandez helps his daughter push around a plastic toy truck . He also bounces her on his knee and contorts his face in a bid to get her to laugh.
“I would stay here and play with her all day if I could,” he says. “I missed her so much, especially when she turned 1. Next year, I’ll bring her up to Seattle with me.”
His mother laughs and shakes her head as she watches Hernandez and her grandchild.
“He hasn’t changed,” she says. “He still plays with little kids like a big boy. That’s what he is. A big boy.”
In this house he is.
Hernandez gets told to pick up his things, to help clear away the family’s laundry backlog and when he can come and go. He knows better than to argue. After all, it was his mother who cracked down on his boyhood penchant for shooting hoops at the playground during school hours and told him his best hope for the future was honing his baseball talent.
“He was terrible as a child,” she says with a laugh. “He skipped school all the time to play basketball. I was the one who told him, ‘You’re going to play baseball because it’s what I want you to do.’
“When he was 13, he was really small. I thought he’d never grow. Then after 14 or 15, he got really big.”
In early and often
Hernandez admits he’d never really envisioned himself as a baseball player. He played shortstop in Little League and could hit the ball farther than most of the other children. But it was on the basketball court where he really excelled.
“I wanted to make it to the NBA,” he says. “I was real good, too, man. Really good. I had the moves.”
But his arm began attracting plenty of baseball attention. By 12, he was pitching on squads traveling outside the city. A couple of years later, at a tournament in Maracaibo, he was spotted by a Mariners bird-dog scout named Luis Fuenmayor.
“I went on a weight-training program, and by the time I was 15, I could throw 94,” Hernandez says.
About two-dozen scouts from various major-league teams eventually found their way here to see him. But the Mariners had a head start, with scouts Pedro Avilla and Emilio Carrasquel, and the team’s director of international relations, Bob Engle, forging a close relationship with the Hernandez family.
Seattle arguably got the best end of the deal, signing Hernandez for a $710,000 bonus just after his 16th birthday. Hernandez would have been worth millions as a first-round choice had he been eligible for baseball’s amateur draft. But smaller paydays are the norm for players from Latin America, where draft rules don’t apply and teams flock to countries like Venezuela to find cheaper talent.
Hernandez’s father took charge of the initial negotiations, trying to ensure his son wasn’t completely exploited like so many Venezuelan prospects. Though his father owns and manages a fleet of five trucks, it wasn’t so long ago that he was still a driver working 24-hour shifts to put food on his family’s table.
His goal was to get a fair signing bonus from a team that would make sure his son was taken care of.
“The Mariners did a very good job,” the elder Hernandez says. “They were interested in Felix for many years before he signed any contract. And they came and talked with us. They told us they would take care of him. We felt very comfortable putting Felix in their hands.”
Scouting pays off
Around the time he was first spotted by scouts, Hernandez was drawing attention of a different kind at the baseball field a few blocks from his house. The park is surrounded by a neighborhood of ramshackle homes and watching from a window of one of those was Mariella Rodriguez, who couldn’t take her eyes off the 14-year-old pitcher.
“When I was playing on the field, I’d see her in her house,” Hernandez says.
Mariella eventually left the house and made her way down to the ballpark.
“I went to the stands to watch him,” she says. “He was very shy. He didn’t talk to anybody. I was the one who asked him out on our first date.”
They had that date on a nearby beach and have been together ever since. She gave birth to their daughter right around the time Hernandez was first called up by the Mariners late in the 2005 season.
Mariella, 20, and Mia live at the Hernandez family home year-round, as do the girlfriend and child of Felix’s brother. Things can get crowded, the sound of wailing children is constant and the length of their separations has been stressful.
“It’s very hard,” Mariella says. “We speak on the telephone almost every day. It’s difficult, but it’s a part of the business and I understand.”
Those conversations are often difficult, she adds, because of the distance involved and an inability to grasp all of the challenges of her boyfriend’s new life. On baseball-related matters, she prefers to let Hernandez work out his frustrations on his own and “not get caught in the middle.”
Hernandez admits to feeling homesick at times. Life in Venezuela can be radically different than in Seattle and other major U.S. cities, a reason Hernandez’s parents have no desire to move or even visit him abroad for very long.
He misses his favorite foods, especially the arepas — pastry shells filled with meat and vegetables — that are a staple snack in this country.
“I eat them all day down here,” he says.
Hernandez hopes to be in his new Venezuelan home with Mariella and Mia by December, then move both up to Seattle once the season begins. He’ll fly to Seattle on his own Jan. 10 to begin a throwing program, then head straight to spring training.
Until then, there is a whole lot of time to kill.
“It’s going to be a long winter,” he says with a sigh.
No desire for change
The Mariners don’t want Hernandez to play winter ball, something many Venezuelan big-leaguers enjoy because it’s the only chance their countrymen have to see them perform live. There is excited talk in the streets, on television and in the newspapers, about the winter league’s launch and Hernandez — whose brother will play for the team in Barquisimeto — seems genuinely disappointed and restless about not being a part of it.
He spends evenings with his girlfriend and hanging out with his childhood pals, Daniel, Jesus and Tomas, from the house next door. They’ll occasionally venture out to a local restaurant, or else just hang out in the backyard barbecue area.
“We listen to music, have a couple of drinks,” Hernandez says. “We’ll talk about baseball, about women. Baseball, women and beer, that’s what we do.”
It’s a life Hernandez seems determined to cling to for as long as he can. The reality of his new situation, of a working life on a different continent, a family of his own to support and an income level incomprehensible to his friends and neighbors, will continue to force changes little by little.
But for now, as he stands on a small terrace outside his bedroom, the tiled rooftops of his neighbors and the foothills of the Cordillera de la Costa mountain range in the distance, this is still the only life that seems real to him.
“I didn’t play baseball because I wanted a different life,” Hernandez says. “I played baseball because it was fun. I enjoyed it. It wasn’t about having money. It wasn’t about wanting to live somewhere else.
“I like playing baseball, so I play. All I wanted to do was play and have fun. And that’s what I’m still doing. So, for me, I’m very happy. I don’t need more.”
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Helping translate in Venezuela was Arturo Marcano.