Growing up in Venezuela, Félix Hernández thought he might take a different path to professional sports in the United States than most of his countrymen.
Hernández played both baseball and basketball in Valencia. He thought basketball was his better sport, and he would often skip school as a youngster to shoot hoops.
“I’m still looking to play in the NBA. That’s still my dream,” Hernández said all these years later with a laugh. “Growing up and playing two different sports I had dreams of playing both as a pro. I loved basketball but I love baseball more now. It’s given me a good life. Better than I could have dreamed.”
The ace of the Mariners’ staff during most of his 14 seasons in the major leagues, Hernandez is an icon in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. King Félix is not just revered for his performance – he has 169 career wins – but passion for the game, charming personality and for staying in Seattle when other superstars opted to leave.
Seattle, of course, is a long way from Venezuela and he seems at the end of his time with the Mariners. However, he still finds it hard to believe how beloved he is by Mariners’ fans, who once called the days Hernández was scheduled to start at Safeco Field as “King Félix Day.”
“It feels amazing,” he said. “The fans in Seattle have always been great. They have loved and supported me over the years more than I could have ever dreamed. It’s unbelievable. I don’t know what’s going to happen after this week (when the season ends) but Seattle will always feel like home for me.”
The Mariners began falling in love with Hernández when he was 14 as he caught the eye of Pedro Avila, the team’s primary scout in Venezuela. However, other major-league teams also soon discovered the hard-throwing teenager. The Atlanta Braves, Colorado Rockies and New York Yankees all had great interest.
By the time he turned 16 and was eligible to sign, Hernández considered all offers. Yet the Mariners were the easy pick, giving him a $700,000 signing bonus on July 4, 2003.
Hernández, like many other Latin American players, grew up in a middle-class environment as his father was a truck driver and his mother a homemaker. Thus, money was not necessarily the deciding factor in his decision.
Hernández chose the Mariners because he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Freddy García. When he was 11, Hernández first watched García pitch for the Mariners on television and became enamored by the right-hander and the idea of following in his footsteps to Seattle.
Throughout his career, King Félix has worn No. 34 to honor García.
Barely more than three years after signing with the Mariners, Hernández reached the major leagues at the tender age of 19 in 2006. He quickly captivated Seattle fans and proceeded to become a star.
“There was a time when there was no doubt that Félix was the best pitcher in the American League,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He was dominant, pretty much overwhelming most of the time.”
Hernández went 19-5 in 2009 and led the AL in wins. He topped the league in ERA with a 2.27 mark in 2010 and again at 2.14 in 2014.
Hernández was also selected to six All-Star Games in a seven-year span from 2009-15. During that stretch, he had a 104-65 record and 2.83 ERA in 230 starts.
King Félix’s crowning achievement came in 2010 when he won the AL Cy Young and forever changed how voters looked at the award.
Hernández was just 13-12 that season at a time when the Cy Young often went to the pitcher who won the most games that season. Yet those casting ballots could not overlook that 2.27 ERA and the fact he allowed just 7.0 hits per nine innings.
What really endeared him to Mariners’ fans, though, was that he decided to stay, signing a seven-year, $175-milllion contract that began in 2013 and expires at season’s end. He was unlike Ken Griffey, Jr., who forced a trade out of town, or Alex Rodriguez, who opted for free agency.
The wear and tear of pitching over 2,700 career innings has caught up to Hernández in recent seasons. Hampered by shoulder problems, he is just 1-7 with a 6.51 ERA in 14 starts this year.
Yet the poor results haven’t dampened the 33-year-old’s competitive spirit or belief in himself.
“I don’t have the velocity I used to have but I still have the stuff,” he said. “When I’ve got command of my fastball, changeup, curveball and slider, I can go out and compete with anyone.”
King Félix has one turn remaining in the rotation this season, and that comes Thursday night against the visiting Oakland Athletics at Safeco Field.
It figures to be the final start with the Mariners as he does not seem to fit into the rebuilding franchise’s plans. However, don’t expect King Félix to abdicate his throne, even if it means switching organizations. He wants to continue to play beyond Thursday.
Hernández has yet to pitch in the postseason as the Mariners haven’t reached the playoffs since 2001, the longest active drought in the major leagues. However, an even bigger goal drives him.
“I’ll try to find a job for next year and I don’t know where I’m going to be,” he said. “I’m not going to be making the money I am now but I’m just looking for numbers, for a chance to keep building up my stats and hopefully make it to the Hall of Fame.”
Featured Image: Stephen Brashear / Getty Images Sport
Inset Image: Otto Greule Jr / Getty Images Sport