Right-hander Felix Hernandez, Mariners agree to $78 million deal.
Felix Hernandez insists that home really is where he has his heart.
Hernandez spoke on Thursday about his young family back in Venezuela, how his son and daughter helped him mature as a father and a man. Then he talked at length about his summer family — a Mariners organization that plucked him out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old and nurtured him as a pitcher until his near-Cy Young Award season in 2009, which led to a payday beyond his wildest dreams.
That Mariners family has changed dramatically since Hernandez first arrived in Seattle in 2005, but he clearly likes the faces he sees around him now. He says he feels at home here, a place he truly wanted to be for five more years and — with a $78 million package to call his own — he will try to build a legacy that will make Seattle his own long after he stops throwing pitches.
“For me, it’s not about money,” Hernandez said moments after a Safeco Field press conference announcing an extension that had been the talk of his adopted home since Monday. “For me, it’s about being here. I know the fans need to be in the playoffs. We need to be in the playoffs. And we knew we had to get things done, early this year, before spring training, and now my mind is clear, all I’ve got to do is go out there and pitch. That’s the only thing I’ve got on my mind right now.”
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There had been speculation for months about whether the Mariners could afford to keep Hernandez. And there were questions surfacing for years about whether this was the place he really wanted to be once his free agency years hit.
Those close to Hernandez say it wasn’t easy for him to play through a 101-loss season in 2008, with a fractured clubhouse all around him. But only four regulars remain from that team — Hernandez, Ichiro, Jose Lopez and Mark Lowe — while the positives of an 85-win season in 2009 have carried over to this winter.
The team’s acquisitions of Cliff Lee, to be introduced at Safeco Field on Friday, and Chone Figgins left Hernandez speechless as he watched from afar in Venezuela. And then, as if the icing on a contract cake, Hernandez saw close friend Franklin Gutierrez ink a four-year extension just two weeks ago.
Hernandez’s agent, Wil Polidor, said Thursday at the press conference that Hernandez and Gutierrez are “very close” and have been since their days playing winter ball back in Venezuela years ago. It’s likely Hernandez would have signed even if the Gutierrez extension hadn’t happened two weeks ago, given how long it takes to get deals like this done.
But it’s also a given that the two players, who share the same agents and keep in close contact back home, must have spoken for quite some time about the direction the team was taking in the weeks and months they waited for their deals to be negotiated and finalized.
“It was not a hard decision,” Hernandez said from up on the podium. “It was easy.”
His agent, Polidor, suggested afterward that Hernandez would have inked a pact in any of the final years Bill Bavasi was still the team’s general manager. The fact that he didn’t, Polidor added, had more to do with the team than Hernandez.
“The last three years, they’ve been saying no to him,” Polidor said. “Felix wasn’t saying no.”
That changed once GM Jack Zduriencik was hired.
“They realized that they had to sign this ace,” Polidor said. “And they tried to sign him.”
Zduriencik now has his ace in the hole as he looks at completing his 2010 roster. He won’t reveal how much money he has to work with, nor whether he feels the need to add another free agent arm or bat.
“I don’t think any general manager ever sits satisfied and I don’t think any general manager ever sits there with his door closed and his phone off … ,” Zduriencik said. “I do like what we have, but like any general manager, I would certainly like to continue to try to get better. I don’t have an answer to what that is right now. So, we have our ears open and we’re listening and talking and continuing to try to tweak and add and we’ll see where it ends up.”
But Zduriencik did say that adding an extended Hernandez to the string of offseason feel-goods like Lee and Figgins can’t hurt the team as it tries to share its story with the world.
Hernandez says he’ll gladly share it with anyone who asks.
“This is a great place to be,” he said.
But it’ll have to be when he isn’t out house-hunting. Hernandez wants to buy one here — preferably in Bellevue.
In many ways, though, he found his home years ago.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners