TACOMA — Jose Rodriguez always looked up to Felix Hernandez, studying Hernandez’s pitching techniques while watching him play in the Venezuelan Winter League in his hometown of Bolivar.
Rodriguez got the closest to meeting his idol Monday, when his Salt Lake Bees, a Class AAA team, played against the Tacoma Rainiers in Hernandez’s final minor-league outing of the season. Rodriguez, a right-handed pitcher in his sixth professional season, spent the game charting his team’s pitching from inside the visitor’s clubhouse.
“I didn’t feel like I was watching him in the minor leagues,” Rodriguez said. “He didn’t look different from how he does in the big leagues. He was still the same.”
Due to a lat strain suffered in May, Hernandez has spent the summer making appearances with Mariners minor-league affiliates for rehab assignments. He played twice for the Rainiers, twice for the short-season Class A Everett AquaSox, and one game for the Class High-A Modesto Nuts in California. Saturday, he’ll take the mound for the Mariners in what is expected to be one of his final starts for Seattle.
Though each game is just a pit stop for the 2010 Cy Young Award winner, Hernandez left lasting impressions and career lessons on these minor-league players.
“Whenever you have a featured big-leaguer being able to pitch in front of professional players that are in their first or second year of pro ball, it’s invaluable,” AquaSox manager Louis Boyd said.
Each time Hernandez played in Everett, AquaSox pitcher Damon Casetta-Stubbs gave up his No. 34 jersey for Hernandez to wear during the game.
“I’ve never had to give my jersey to anyone, so it’s a weird feeling,” Casetta-Stubbs said. “But obviously, growing up in the Northwest, he’s like your baseball idol, especially him being a pitcher, too. At first, I was a little star-struck, but I think all the guys were.”
Very few have played on the same team as Hernandez, but even fewer have caught for the six-time All-Star. Those who have know they play supporting roles to Hernandez’s mound performance.
“Obviously, everyone is watching him because he handles his business like a pro,” said Tacoma catcher Joseph Odom, who caught for Hernandez on Monday. “He takes the reins on the majority of stuff of what he wants to do and what he wants to work on or how he wants to feel, so my biggest thing is just try to get to know him a little bit and just ask him what I can do to help him feel the best he can.”
Nonetheless, the experience is one of a kind.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in what he’s done in his career and being able to catch him,” said Everett catcher Carter Bins, who caught Hernandez in early August. “Not many guys can say they caught a Cy Young Award winner or caught a guy with a perfect game, so that’s pretty cool to be able to say that I’ve done that.”
With a handful of Tacoma and Everett players from the Pacific Northwest, many were familiar with Hernandez’s career and downplayed their fandom.
“In the moment, I can’t treat him as somebody different,” AquaSox manager Boyd said. “I will admit that in his second outing, I was just straight up watching him pitch because I was in awe of how sharp his stuff was and how good he was locating his pitches. It was fun to just sit back and watch him do his thing. I got him to sign the lineup card after the game, which is something that I’ll cherish for a while and just something super special to me.”
Boyd turned the opportunity into a teaching moment for his players.
“One thing that was really cool to see in his two starts here was the first time he was good, but the second time he came back, he was considerably better,” Boyd said. “That was a point that I made to our team that, ‘Guys, it doesn’t matter if it’s your first year of pro ball or if you’re going to be in the Hall of Fame, there is always improvement to be made.’”
Hernandez brought in large crowds and catered postgame dinners for the teams — a tradition many major-league players do when on rehab assignments in the minors.
“They like to take care of the spread and pay toward the guys and let them know that they’re thankful for letting them come and interrupt our routines,” Odom said. On Monday, Hernandez brought in surf and turf for the Rainiers, complete with crab, steak and mac and cheese.
While Hernandez’s rehab stint may be over, these minor-league players will always remember their experiences with King Felix.
“Not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that happening,” Boyd said.