Early in spring training, Felix Hernandez was raving about new manager Lloyd McClendon, calling him “a great guy — a guy you can go and talk to about anything.”
Then Hernandez was asked about all the skippers he has played for since he arrived in Seattle in 2005 as a 19-year-old phenom. The question, unlike most major-league hitters, stumped him.
“I think Lloyd’s the seventh,’’ Felix said, grinning. “I’m not sure. I’ll have to count. That’s a pretty good question.”
As he settles comfortably into the role of “elder statesman” — if that’s applicable to someone who will turn a mere 28 on April 8 — Hernandez has seen a whirlwind of change on the homefront. And yes, he was right, he’s working on Manager No. 7 (all together now: Hargrove, McLaren, Riggleman, Wakamatsu, Brown, Wedge, McClendon), a revolving door that has been accompanied by a steady stream of teammates in ingress and egress.
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Through it all, and the team’s struggles along the way, the King has remained regal, and almost single-handedly made the Mariners relevant during the most dismal years (which has been most of them).
But now Hernandez has company on the superstar front: Robinson Cano, who defied conventional wisdom by taking the Mariners’ winter offer of $240 million for 10 years. It’s still a bit hard to process, but it is surreal reality: Cano has indeed turned in his pinstripes and fled the House that Ruth Built for the dangerous confines of The Safe.
So here’s a comforting thought for Mariners fans: No matter how much the team continues to struggle on its perpetual journey back to contention, they still have arguably the best pitcher on the planet — Hernandez is at least in the conversation — on the mound every five days.
And now, they have one of the best hitters on the planet in their lineup every day. And that means Every. Single. Day. Cano has missed just 14 games the past seven seasons with the Yankees.
Watching those two in action should provide solace and sizzle even if the annual rush of spring-training optimism proves to be, once again, short-lived for Mariners fans. The Mariners might have holes, they might have deficiencies, they might have turmoil on the verge of rearing its ugly headaches.
But they have two transcendent talents still in full bloom, waiting for the rest of the team to develop around them. The Mariners with Hernandez have always had a bittersweet vibe, the sense that his best years are being played out on a back stage, with no playoffs in sight to showcase his talent.
Now, here comes Cano, used to virtually annual postseason runs — including one all the way to a World Series title in 2009. One has to wonder how he would handle being relegated to relative anonymity in Seattle if the Mariners don’t find a way to contend.
It’s not fair to call the Mariners a two-man team — not with Hisashi Iwakuma coming off a third-place Cy Young finish, Kyle Seager emerging as one of the better third basemen in the American League, and other young players of promise and potential who could break out at any time.
But there’s no question whatsoever they are the faces of the franchise, and figure to be for the foreseeable future. Overlapping superstars is a luxury the Mariners have had only intermittently — most bountifully in the era of Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez. When three of those left, Martinez was paired with Ichiro (but mostly past Edgar’s prime), and Ichiro with Adrian Beltre (but Beltre never attained the heights in Seattle that he did before, and after).
Already, it appears, a kinship is developing between Hernandez and Cano, who were previous teammates only for a fleeting few days in All-Star games. When Cano was mulling over his free-agent options, he consulted with Hernandez, who put on a sell job.
“He was like, ‘They’re going to make you feel like family,’ ’’ Cano said at his introductory news conference. “ ‘They’ll always take care of you; any time you want to talk to them, they’ll be there for you.’ That played a big part in my decision.”
In spring, they could be seen together frequently in the Peoria clubhouse.
“Me and Robby, we’ve been talking a lot,’’ Hernandez said. “We have a good feeling. We talk about everything — what do we have here, what do we need to do to win.”
That equation has been elusive for the Mariners. But with Hernandez and Cano on hand, the search will be a lot more compelling.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry