By Shannon Drayer
PEORIA, Ariz. – Felix Hernandez made the move that many veterans have made in previous springs. Play the veteran card and avoid the long roadtrip. Ken Griffey Jr. used to joke that he had "no greys" in his locker. In other words, no away uniforms. Of course, his son Trey got the ultimate revenge on his dad choosing to play football at the University of Arizona resulting in Junior taking more trips to Tucson in the last two years than he had in his entire baseball career.
Now the longest trip for the Mariners is to Mesa. Only 45 miles away it is nothing compared to the cross Florida trips the Grapefruit League teams must take, but throw in traffic and an impossible parking situation and you are easily looking at an hour and a half door to door. I know, cry me a river, but still for the pitcher it disrupts his routine. Spring training for Felix is more about getting work and honing his pitches than notching wins against other "big-league" teams. Felix is different than most pitchers in that he could find a way to get the work he needs to get in a high-school game. He turns it up whether the crowd is 40,000 or 50. He is more than happy to join a minor-league squad and play on a field that has just two tiny sets of bleachers set up for fans.
For me, I enjoy making trips down to the lower fields to see the minor leaguers and chat with the organizational staff. In the days before the blogs and obliteration of any sort of deadline thanks to Twitter and whatnot, a good part of my spring was spent down there. A lot can be seen and learned in a just a little time and if Felix was going to stay in Peoria today I decided that was all the excuse I needed to stay as well. I'm glad I did.
I have always said that spring training is the best fan experience in professional sports. You can't get closer to the players or the action. There is plenty of interaction and most importantly there is a glimpse into the teaching and the learning that goes on in organizations. Something you really can't see April through October and all, of course, with the added benefit of sunny skies and warm temperatures which most of us are ready for when February/March rolls around.
There was plenty to see for those who wandered down to the lower fields today. They got the closest look they will ever get of Felix Hernandez pitching. They were just feet away from seeing what the hitter sees. They got to see the interaction with his catcher, Mike Zunino, and see and hear his reactions to what he was doing on the hill. If they looked around and put two and two together they would have seen Felix's father either up against the fence or sitting in the first row of bleachers, usually with a smile on his face. It was a good day for Mr. Hernandez as his son Moises was to follow Felix on the mound.
Jay Buhner was there in uniform as he has been working with the minor leaguers the last few days. Dan Wilson was there as well but that is now a familiar sight as he has made the commitment to a bigger role. There was a surprise on the Brewers side as seated in one of the coaches chairs was former Mariner Jeremy Reed. This is Reed's first year as minor-league hitting coordinator for the Brewers and it is good to see him back in the game after an injury-shortened career.
There were a number of Mariners scouts on hand as well as countless minor leaguers who were not in the game. The two-bench riser that sits behind home plate was jam-packed with minor-league pitchers, one holding the radar gun another charting the pitches and then a dozen crammed onto the benches just getting a better look at Felix.
Felix clearly doesn't mind throwing in these games. Whether it is a minor-league game or a simulated game against minor leaguers, Felix always goes out of his way to thank those he works with and tip his cap when necessary. He got his work in and as has been the case in past years when big leaguers ventured onto the mound in minor-league games the youngsters came out swinging. No matter, it wasn't about the score (Felix gave up two earned runs on five hits while striking out six and walking none) rather about the work, which Felix got plenty of as he stretched out to 82 pitches.
"Pound the zone," he answered when asked what his focus was. "Pound the zone and work on all my pitches. It went really good and I am really happy about it."
One thing Felix was not too happy with was one member of the crowd. He had a small cheering section behind home plate that got a little loud from time to time. One person in particular stood out yelling in Spanish sometimes cheering Felix on, sometimes giving him a hard time. It was very good-natured and probably not to be unexpected from this person I recognized fairly quickly.
"Is that one of Felix's brothers?" asked a fan me in the stands.
"No," I replied with a laugh. "That is his barber."
Oh yes. Felix is very serious about his hair so it was no surprise to see his barber (and good friend who you might recognize if you follow Felix on Twitter) in Peoria.
"That's my barber. He was talking," Felix said, shaking his head. "I almost was going to call security to take him out."
So Felix got a little practice dealing with adversity on the lower fields.
"I almost was going to yell, 'Sut up!' For real," he said. "The last inning I turned around and said something to him. Probably people thought I was fighting with him, but he's my barber, for real."
Felix did bark sharply at the barber but I don't think anyone thought there was actual fighting or anger involved. In fact, several people laughed. Angry Felix is just something most Mariners fans don't quite buy, which is good because Felix wasn't really angry.
No, he was happy with his performance, happy to get to pitch in front of his father and happy to get to watch his brother pitch in the same game he pitched in. It was a good day for Felix, his family and I would guess a good day for the 50 or so fans who ventured down to the lower fields Thursday afternoon.