SEATTLE – It was three hours after the most starkly depressing Mariners defeat of the season – and there are quite a few candidates for that distinction.
Philip Humber, a journeyman right-hander for the Chicago White Sox whose career before and after April 21 has been marked by mediocrity, had just hurled a perfect game at Safeco Field, the 21st in major league history. A small group of Mariners hitters sat at their locker, commiserating and dissecting the occasion.
Among them, still in full uniform, sitting on the clubhouse floor, was Felix Hernandez, giving the disconsolate hitters a pep talk.
“He was telling them, ‘This is going to work. This is going to be OK,’” said pitching coach Carl Willis. “Obviously, he didn’t have to do that. But he has a passion for the game, and he has a passion for the Mariners. It’s real.” You might hear about it, but I don’t think people grasp how deep that is.”
As manager of the Cleveland Indians, Eric Wedge for years had monitored the progress of Hernandez at a distance, from flame-throwing but erratic youngster to increasingly poised ace. But when he took the Mariners’ job last year, Wedge was unprepared for the total package he was inheriting.
“If I could have had a best-case scenario what this guy is all about, before I came in here, on and off the field – the way he handles himself, the type of teammate he is, the type of competitor he is, the way he feels about Seattle, the way he goes about his business, the way he leads by example – it couldn’t be any better,” Wedge said. “Maybe even better than that.”
That is the Felix Hernandez who will leave today for Kansas City and his third All-Star appearance. Undoubtedly, he is the face of the franchise. But, increasingly, he is also the heart and soul of the Mariners, which could become an increasingly important factor as the organization faces the agonizing decision of how to proceed with Hernandez’s future.
Many analysts are urging the M’s to trade Hernandez, maybe as soon as this year’s trade deadline, to get the highest possible return before he inevitably hits free agency after the 2014 season. That’s when his current five-year, $78 million contract expires.
What they are missing is that Hernandez is fully invested in the ballclub, and the city, having attained the level of commitment that every ballclub covets from its superstars, but rarely gets.
He and his family – wife Sandra and young children Mia and Abraham – have made a home here. Hernandez has forged close friendships on the ballclub. He’s comfortable with the organization. And despite the struggles – the losing seasons that keep mounting and the lack of run support that has cost him so many wins – he has never shown anything less than a total desire to make it work in Seattle.
That alone is not a reason to keep Hernandez. There are certainly powerful arguments to be made for trading him, if not now then at some point before his contract ends. Though he is barely three months past his 26th birthday, Hernandez’s workload is mounting. He just passed 1,500 innings, and historically, that is often a precursor to marked decline. The Mariners are not an organization that can afford an “oops” on a $100 million-plus contract, which Hernandez will likely command.
There is also the troubling reality that the Mariners’ rebuilding blueprint – assuming it does indeed coalesce according to the master plan – may not be rapid enough to have the full benefit of Hernandez leading a contending team in the next two seasons.
Wil Polidor, Hernandez’s agent, said Friday that there have yet to be substantive talks with the Mariners on an extension.
“So far, nothing,” he said. “(The end of the contract) is still two years away.” Jack Zduriencik has steadfastly indicated that the Mariners have no intention of trading Hernandez. Polidor said Felix is not worried about that possibility.
“All he’s worried about is helping the Mariners win the game every time he pitches,” Polidor said.
Hernandez’s future in Seattle also was cloudy the first time he neared free agency. He confounded many people by re-upping in January 2010, citing his comfort with the organization and his belief in a brighter future.
By all accounts, that conviction hasn’t changed. Each year, Hernandez’s leadership role has grown with his stature in the game.
“That’s part of the job description when you’re a true ace,” Wedge said. “You’re expected to do more, and you’re supposed to do more. That’s what he handles, and that’s what he does.”
Hernandez is a rarity — a player who has the wisdom of experience at a point when his physical ability is still at, or near, peak form.
“Each year, he’s become a better pitcher as far as knowing what he wants to throw people, and understanding what he needs to do out there,” said his close friend, Jason Vargas. “I think that, accompanied with the stuff he has, that’s what makes really good pitchers great.”
Dating back to spring training, there has been concern over decreased velocity by Hernandez. And there was an alarming midseason stretch in which he put up a 7.41 earned-run average over three games and looked as ordinary as “The King” ever has.
But that was followed by a dominating three-game stretch in which King Felix was regal again: 2-0 with a 0.78 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 23 innings, capped by a five-hit, 13-strikeout, 128-pitch, 1-0 victory over the Red Sox.
“This year, there’s been a lot of talk about a decrease in velocity,” Willis said. “Really, in my brief time here, I haven’t seen the consistent 96s that were there when he was younger. But when you hear opposing hitters talk about him, it’s the movement. You couple that with his ability to throw any pitch in any count, it just makes it difficult to hit.
“He has four above-average pitches. He’ll tell you he has six. But he can throw any pitch at any count. The other thing he brings a lot of energy to the mound, to the game. He has fun playing the game, yet it’s his job. He’s very serious about it. He feeds off his own energy, and just that competition.
“I think that’s what makes him special.” Hernandez is undeniably special, and at least for the time being, he’s a Mariner. That might not be a permanent affiliation, as unthinkable as it might be to imagine a Seattle baseball future without King Felix. But for now, as he heads off to join the game’s elite in Kansas City, it’s something to savor while we still can.
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