PEORIA, Ariz. – Not that long ago, Felix Hernandez thanked his bosses for believing in him. He assured them he would not disappoint. He sat in a room with his wife and children, in a building that had done a lot more losing than winning since he'd come along, and told them – told everyone – "I want to be here forever."
He'd make more money than a pitcher ever had. The first regular check toward that $175 million is due any day. And yet there was something so sweet, so powerful, about Hernandez that day, after all he'd done, after all the organization had tried and failed at. Maybe it was just the money. But I doubt it.
"The word that keeps coming to mind is 'genuine,'" Hernandez's manager, Eric Wedge, said Wednesday. "That's what he is. He wants to be here for all the right reasons."
Here, of course, is Seattle. With the Mariners. Since the day in early August 2005 when Hernandez, at 19, popped his head in the door, took the ball and went to work becoming The King, the franchise is 114 games under .500. That's with Hernandez, over the same time, going 98-76, 22 games over .500.
At an impressionable time in his life, when a player of his ability might understandably seek a ride on the first loophole out of town, Hernandez stayed, and because of it cried with joy. He was rich already. He'd been decorated with individual awards. He'd seen the plans – and the designers of those plans – come and go. He'd seen free agents arrive and then count the days to the ends of their terms.
But not Felix.
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Instead, he says he believes in the Mariners, the city, the people there. He has this thing with the workers at Safeco Field, the men and women who tend to the ballpark, and guard the doors, and greet him with a smile and a go-get-em-King. On Wednesday he said that some of them – some, he said, and there he went again, his eyes growing red and his words going all sloppy in his throat – "They treat me like a son."
Like he can hardly fathom it, like he maybe doesn't deserve it, like he needs them as friends far more than they could ever need him as a pitcher.
"I'm just so happy there," he said.
So the baseball generally hasn't been all that great, other than Felix himself. The Mariners don't contend, they disappoint. All Hernandez had to do was wait, make his tens of millions, lower his head, tell everyone he was sorry but business is business, and go. Then he'd never be 114 games under .500 again. He'd get a playoff start or two and learn to love New York or L.A. or wherever he chose. It wouldn't be three hours or more every time he boarded a plane. There'd be some other guy to hold a door and wish him well and not judge him beyond a handshake and a hug.
But that wouldn't have been Felix.
"My mom and dad," he said, "they raised me pretty good."
All these feelings, these pulls toward accountability, toward responsibility, he said, "It comes from the bottom of my heart, man."
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He made his final spring start Wednesday afternoon, throwing 96 pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He liked his fastball fine, didn't really feel his curveball, and otherwise got in a couple more hours of preparation for Monday's season-opener in Oakland. The opposing pitcher was Clayton Kershaw, just as dynamic, one day to be as rich, and postgame was asked to consider if the Dodgers would be just great or really great.
In the home clubhouse, Hernandez deals with none of that. The Mariners will be better. They hit a lot of home runs in spring. Mike Morse, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez should be enough to prod the Mariners into something other than the worst offensive team in the American League.
So Hernandez has hope. Lots of it, actually. By way of that contract, he'll see this – the next generation of Mariners baseball & through. He'll win plenty of games. And he'll believe in the organizational course, because he wears the uniform and because that's who he is. He owes that to all the folks that choose to believe with him. And in him. Sure, the decision to stay came with a lot of money, more than any man should probably turn down. But he chose to stay in Seattle. Take away the steady paychecks and that still counts for something.
A guy can get a paycheck anywhere. A Cy Young Award winner, a pitcher with his ability, can get a big paycheck anywhere.
Felix chose there. And he chose them. And that's what makes it special for everyone, including him.
"I live there," he said, like that should be all the explanation anyone would need, like he needs them more than they need him.
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