Felix Hernandez grabs the pieces of paper, each containing a picture of him.
The first is of a cherubic young man with a big smile and bigger body. The kid in that picture weighs close to 260 pounds with a round face that looks like it will never grow facial hair. His whole baseball life is in front of him.
“That’s fat Felix,” he said. “I don’t want to see that.”
The same husky kid is in the second picture. He’s throwing a pitch in a spring-training game in 2005. There is a look of determination on his face as he follows through on what is most likely a blazing fastball. The force of his delivery coupled with his unruly collection of curly hair has sent his baseball cap flying off his head.
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“He’s coming back,” he said, running his hand through hair that has grown into the same twisted mass. Through his fingers, a few stray gray hairs make brief appearances, darting out from the jet-black mass.
He looks closer at the pictures and smiles. It’s the smile someone gets looking at their high-school yearbook. No matter how awful the pictures were, how outrageous the hairstyle or out of date the clothing, there is warmth in remembering who you were and who you’ve become.
It’s the same for Felix. It’s just that his old pictures are on collectible cards or on the yellowing newsprint of old sports pages.
“I’m different now,” he said.
He signed with the Mariners at age 16 out of Valencia, Venezuela — a chubby kid with a right arm that seemed to have been touched by a bolt of lightning. The Mariners organization was his higher education, the staff members his teachers. They taught him, nurtured him and protected him.
Now, he’s 28 and in his 10th season. Tenth, really?
On the last road trip, someone mentioned he was getting old.
“Old? I’m getting better,” he said.
Fat Felix is gone. He has been replaced by King Felix. It’s a nickname he once loathed and now loves.
He’s grown into a father, a star pitcher, a Cy Young Award winner, the probable starter in the All-Star Game on Tuesday and the face of the Mariners franchise. To those around him, he’s more.
And yet as longtime trainer Rick Griffin says, “He’s still the same Felix.”
Armed with a mid-to-high 90s four-seam fastball, a nasty curve and the attitude to go with it, he was dubbed “King Felix” before he threw a big-league pitch. After a promising start at the end of the 2005 season, going 4-4 with a 2.67 earned-run average in 12 starts, greatness was expected to follow.
Only it didn’t. A 12-14 record with a 4.52 ERA in 2006 was good, but not great, which was unacceptable.
“I think I started 0-7 that year with a 6-something ERA,” he said. “I realized that’s not me, and I have to do something about it.”
The weight was an issue for “Fat Felix.” His commitment to conditioning in the offseason and during the season was lacking. It put him at risk of injury.
“He had bad eating habits,” Griffin said. “He didn’t understand the work it required on a daily basis to be successful at the MLB level.”
After the struggles, Felix began to understand.
“I don’t want to be just an average guy,” he said. “I want to do whatever possible to win a lot of games. I’m a competitor.”
So he shaved 30 pounds off through diet and intense offseason workouts. People gasped when they saw him the next season.
Each year, he does more. This past offseason he added more strength to his legs.
“Every year you have to keep adjusting,” he said. “I’m 28, I’m not 19 anymore. You have to work harder now.”
No more Fat Felix.
“They had a picture of him like that in the team store,” Griffin said. “He didn’t like that. He had them take it down and put up a new one.”
But it wasn’t just a physical transformation. Felix evolved into a pitcher. It wasn’t just a skill. It was his craft.
“I was a thrower,” he said. “I was throwing 97, 98 the whole game. Why did I need to throw to the corners? Now I’m more of a pitcher. Throwing to the corners, mixing in with breaking balls, and sometimes throwing my fastball.”
And there’s the changeup, or “cambio” as he calls it.
“In ’05, ’06, ’07 and ’08, I wasn’t throwing any changeups at all,” he said. “Maybe two or three per game. In ’09, I started playing with the grip, started throwing it in the bullpen and playing catch. It came out really good.”
Good? Using the variation of a circle-change grip (index finger circled and tucked over the thumb) the ball came out of his hand like a fastball and dropped like a split-finger at 90 mph.
In that 2009 season, he went 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA, striking out 217 batters. He earned his first All-Star nod and finished second in the Cy Young voting. The next season he won the Cy Young with a 13-12 record, but a league-leading 2.27 ERA and 232 strikeouts in a career-high 2492/3 innings. This year, he was selected to his fifth All-Star team.
He’s grown into the pitcher everyone believed he could be.
“He’s the complete package,” said Mariners pitcher Chris Young. “To be as successful as he is, you have to be. He’s got the physical, the mental and the competitiveness and the intangibles. When he’s out there, he’s dead set on finding a way to win. It’s fun to watch, and it can be amazing to watch.”
The rumors started before spring training 2013. The Mariners were looking to sign Felix to another contract extension. In 2010, he signed a five-year, $78 million extension. But this one was going to reward him as one of the best pitchers in baseball. More important, it would keep him in a Mariners uniform and erase any lingering worries that he could someday end up in Yankee pinstripes.
The deal — a new contract of seven years, $175 million — was the largest in club history.
“When you start throwing this kind of guaranteed money out — hundreds of millions of dollars — you always know there’s a risk,” CEO Howard Lincoln said. “There’s always a risk of injury, which you factor in. There’s a risk that money will go to the player’s head, that he’ll do all sorts of screwy things. That his life outside of baseball will change. That he won’t be the dedicated family man that he was when you signed him.”
Any lingering doubts floating in the back of Lincoln’s mind were assuaged the day before the deal was announced to the public.
“I wanted to congratulate him,” Lincoln said. “I went down to the clubhouse and it was pretty much vacant. There he was, and he had tears in his eyes. He pointed his finger at me, and said, ‘I will never let you down.’ He meant it.”
It wasn’t the last time Felix would be overcome by tears.
On the day of the announcement, Felix stepped out of the elevator at the basement level of Safeco Field holding hands with his wife, Sandra. He was ready to meet with the media. Instead, he was met first by cheers. Nearly every Mariners employee in the building was clad in King’s Court T-shirts chanting and cheering his name.
It was all too much. Tears streamed down his cheeks.
“It was unbelievable,” he recalled.
The news conference featured more tears. Felix struggled through his emotions, but in a choked-up voice, said he would do his best and that the Mariners were going to be on top.
The emotion was real. It was raw and genuine. It made fans love him more. He still can’t watch it.
“Such a crybaby,” he said.
Even with the signing of Robinson Cano, Felix is the player you identify with the Mariners. But not every superstar wants, or can handle, that responsibility.
“It takes a special person,” said manager Lloyd McClendon.
Alex Rodriguez couldn’t handle it. Ichiro never wanted it. Felix has understood and embraced it. It’s not a burden. He realized his status a few years ago and said, “I want it. I’ll take it.”
It starts with being accountable on the field. It means being there for the organization in any number of ways — handshakes, photos, appearances and more.
“When we ask him to do something for the organization, he always says yes,” Lincoln said. “Always.”
For Mariners vice president of marketing Kevin Martinez, Felix is a dream — an adored and willing star with charisma and personality.
“Felix and our fans had such a bond from the start,” Martinez said. “Our fans embraced him, and he threw both of his arms around them collectively and pulled them to his chest. You can sense that every time he pitches.”
Beyond the fiery glove-pounding celebration, there is a lovable humility and playful self-deprecation that fans embrace. It’s brought out in the Mariners’ commercials, where he shines. From his alter-ego Larry Bernandez to hot-sauce-covered baseballs, it’s made him more popular. He even dressed up as Bernandez and handed out bobbleheads of his likeness at the Safeco front gates.
“He’s engaged,” Martinez said. “Once he says yes to something, he gives it 100 percent.”
The Mariners try not to overdo it with him. They know everybody wants a piece of him, and he’s also active in charities, locally and in Venezuela. Felix knows he can’t do everything.
“Sometimes you have to say no,” he said. “But it’s hard to say no.”
To those around him, the best measure of Felix’s greatness isn’t wins and losses, ERA or strikeouts. It isn’t the millions of dollars. It’s the interactions. It’s the idea that he treats everyone the same. He might have few peers on the mound, but everyone is equal to him when he leaves the field.
From clubhouse attendants, rookies, veterans, media and staffers, they are the same. It’s why he’s so beloved within the organization.
“He doesn’t have to be the limelight guy,” Griffin said.
Often times you’ll see Felix with the clubhouse guys more than his teammates. They wear one of an assortment of Felix shirts the days he starts.
“He’s the most gracious person I’ve ever been around,” said clubhouse attendant Chris DeWitt. “For him being what he is in this town, for him to be this personable to us, he treats us like we are part of his family. He has us over for barbecues, has us come over and watch football games. Anything he thinks of, he includes us in it.”
He even includes himself in the most unexpected of occasions.
“He came to my wedding this past offseason,” DeWitt said. “How crazy is that?”
When Yoervis Medina was a rookie last season, Hernandez mentored his fellow Venezuelan. They ran together, ate together. Their lockers are never far apart.
“He’s been a big influence since I got to the major leagues,” Medina said through translator Fernando Alcala. “He talks to me every day. I not only consider him a friend, but more of a brother.”
It extends beyond the clubhouse.
“He engages with people on that personal level,” Martinez said. “Some ballplayers don’t do it. Some human beings don’t do it.”
For Lincoln, it made investing in Felix the pitcher that much easier. He knows sincerity isn’t always found in professional sports.
“I’ve seen them all,” Lincoln said. “I’ve seen Alex Rodriguez. I remember dealing with him the year we decided we were going to try to convince him this was a place he should stay. And he was not sincere. You contrast that with Felix, you just have that really good feeling that you are dealing with a really good human being.”
Felix doesn’t think that’s special. It’s expected.
“That’s just me,” he said. “I’m still Felix and there are good people here.”
It’s why Felix Hernandez stayed in Seattle. It’s why he’ll be the ace and the face of the Mariners’ franchise. It’s why they can move him to tears. They’ve helped him blossom into a man. It’s why he says he’ll never change.
“They want to win here,” he said. “I love the city. I don’t want to go nowhere. I realized this is the team I want to be with, and I’m here.”
|Felix Hernandez, by the numbers|
|Felix Hernandez is in his 10th season with the Mariners.|
Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373
On Twitter: @RyanDivish