By Shannon Drayer
The title "face of the franchise" is never officially bestowed on a player, but the Mariners like most teams have a long list of them. At some point over the last few years Felix Hernandez ascended to that distinction. His new deal will no doubt keep him there for many years to come. A former face of the franchise says this is well deserved.
"He's the franchise," Ken Griffey Jr. told me Tuesday afternoon. "Coming up I remember looking at him as a little chunky kid throwing hard. And to see him 9, 10 years later, what he has turned himself into physically, mentally, it is phenomenal."
Griffey has had the unique opportunity of getting to watch Felix from afar as an opponent, as a Mariner employee and as a teammate. As an opponent, he wanted no part of him.
"Everyone has asked me, if there was one pitcher you wouldn't want to face, it's him," he said. "He is a pitcher who has got everything and then some.”
"He has learned how to be a pitcher and not a thrower. When he came up, it was here comes 97, hit it. Now he changes up, moves it up and down, gives you a different look. He has become a pitcher."
While Griffey watched for years with interest from afar when he was in a different uniform, it was when he shared a clubhouse and dugout with Felix that he learned the most about him. The two formed a bond early with Junior dubbing Felix "Pitchman." Pitchman and Swingman in the same clubhouse.
What impressed Griffey the most about Felix on the field was the fact that he never flinched under pressure. He knew his wins would mostly be his responsibility.
"He knew the run support wasn't going to be there, he wasn't going to have the 9, 10 runs," said Griffey. "We used to tease him, 'hey we scored all the runs, sorry Fifi!" And he would go, 'I know.' (chuckles) He goes out and 'just give me a couple and I will work with it.'”
"He can handle that. He puts that on his shoulders. He knows that, but goes out there and gives you everything he has from the first pitch until they close."
As a Mariners employee and someone who still has strong ties to Seattle, Griffey is thrilled to see Felix stay. While "home" in Florida was the pull that eventually led to Griffey leaving Seattle, he points out that wouldn't be the case for Felix.
"This is the only home he has had since he left Venezuela and that is important to him. It's his town," he pointed out.
Griffey noted that it’s Felix he’s asked about the most when he is home in Florida. According to Junior, Felix is the most recognizable sports star from Seattle and he couldn't be a better representative.
"He is such a good kid and a lot of people don't know him like I got a chance to. Being a DH and spending time on the bench I really got to watch him and he is such a great kid," he said. "He takes his craft so seriously and he goes out there and is a professional when he is on the mound. And I just wish he was like 15 years older because it would have been fun standing behind him and watching him pitch."
Griffey will have to settle for sitting across from him at dinner some point this spring. And Felix will be buying.
"Oh yeah," Griffey laughed. "I am going to order everything under the sun."
Two lobsters perhaps?
"And shrimp cocktail!" Griffey cackled.
The former and current face of the franchise share a sense of humor and the belief that fun is a huge part of the job. Griffey said that it was important that Felix not lose that and not feel any extra pressure with the new deal.
"The pressure that he puts on himself is plenty," he said. "He goes out there and wants to win every time and that's all he needs to do. He doesn't need to change. Keep the fun. He's going to teach kids how to pitch, they are going to ask him questions but he has still got to be him."
The two share a team and city. Griffey hopes one day they will share a spot in Cooperstown.
"I am just hoping he stays healthy enough to win 202 more games."